One thing that I can add to the list of things that I never hope I have to deal with is spending hard time in a Turkish prison. That just looks like the opposite of a good time. It looks like a terrible time. Midnight Express is a movie that when it was first released in 1978 caused a big stir both in America and in Turkey, it being based off of a true story about a young man who was made an example of but eventually escaped the Turkish prison system. This is obviously a movie that loves to show off (also being Oliver Stone’s first screen writing credit), but even though it’s a braggart and unfair in some ways, it still entertained me fully for the entire time it was on, and has stuck with me since.
In 1970, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) and his girlfriend are about to get on a flight back to America from Istanbul, but Billy has a secret. He is hiding about 2 kilos of hashish under his shirt. Unfortunately for Hayes, he gets caught and sentenced to spend four years in a Turkish prison. There he is beaten and tortured by sadistic prison guards, but also finds friendship in fellow prisoners like the irrational Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and the doped up Englishman, Max (John Hurt). After his original four year sentence gets extended to thirty years to make an example out of him, Billy and his friends decide it’s time to catch the Midnight Express out there, which means finding an escape route and taking it.
First, let’s talk about some awkward things in the movie. Midnight Express got a lot of backlash from Turkish viewers for how they were portrayed in the movie. It even got banned in Turkey up until just recently. I heard about all that before seeing the movie, and I have to say they have a point. The guards and a certain character named Rifki are almost cartoon villains in the way they treat other people. Save for maybe a few, all of the Turks in this movie are hammed up. Stone has later apologized for their portrayal. Also, this movie isn’t very accurate in its depictions. The story of Hayes is actually a lot longer, but due to budget and time it couldn’t be fully explored. That’s excusable in this case though, since the movie actually flows very well.
Prison movies can sort of wear thin on me after a while. It’s even difficult for me to watch a classic like The Shawshank Redemption is just one sitting, but I had no problem getting through Midnight Express. The characters and the mood and the entire predicament of the movie was really interesting and fun for me to see it play out. The suspense in this movie was very suspenseful and the feeling of dread permeated the screen and found its way into my living room. It being a true story and all, the film had even more of an effect. Even though it’s pretty inaccurate, the core story is true and that alone was enough to push the movie forward. I will say it got a little weird towards the end, and it all comes to a conclusion rather abruptly which felt weird since the slow and steady pace was working really well for it.
You can really tell that Oliver Stone wrote this movie, even though it was so early on his career. It has those show stopping scenes that really grab your attention with their outlandishness, but in some ways it works with the foreign and scary feeling of the entire movie. With a script written by Stone, the actors certainly have their hands full. Brad Davis, who’s kind of a tragedy himself, handles the role very well and is easy to believe that he’s just a young man in a prison. I still feel like the real stars of the movie are Randy Quaid and John Hurt, who give two of the best supporting performances I’ve seen in a while. I really got to love those characters, and seeing them all in their situation had a powerful effect.
I went into Midnight Express expecting to enjoy it for a while and then feel overwhelmingly bored, but that never happened. I was actually gripped for the entire two hours that it was onscreen. The real story of Billy Hayes is a terrifying trip through hell on earth, and it’s shown well here in this film, even if it isn’t exactly what happened. There are some weird scenes that feel out of place at the end and the treatment of the Turks in this movie would never fly today, but all in all there are a good deal of films that owe a lot to Midnight Express and the film as a whole is well executed and memorable. Check it out.