“Midnight Express” - Alan Parker (1978)

Midnight Express (1978) is a darkly-tinged prison drama that is based on a true story – Billy Hayes’s own autobiographical account, also titled Midnight Express (co-authored with William Hoffer, 1977),  of his experiences inside a Turkish prison in the 1970s.  Billy Hayes was a young American student who was imprisoned in 1970 for possession of hashish as he was about to leave Istanbul and return to the United States.  I would say that the film, directed by the versatile Alan Parker, has an undeniable brilliance to it, but for various reasons it received only mixed reviews [1,2].

For one thing, some critics disputed the veracity of both the film’s and Hayes’s accounts of what actually happened [3,4].  Other critics complained that Billy Hayes was not a sympathetic character, because he was guilty of trying to smuggle prohibited drugs, and he was also responsible for carrying out some violent and unsavoury actions on his own part [5].  There were further complaints from critics that the film presented a slanted and negatively prejudicial depiction of the Turkish people, suggesting they were all cruel and/or corrupt [1].

I suggest, however, that we drop all these concerns about social and historical accuracy.  Midnight Express is really a horror film, and we should just treat it more as a brilliant expressionistic fantasy than as a strictly realistic portrayal.  The film draws the viewer into a disturbing nightmare from which there seems to be no escape.  But thanks to the film’s superb production values, which featured many emotive closeups and medium-closeups all the way along, it is continuously psychologically gripping.

In connection with these production values, we should commend the contributions not only of director Alan Parker, but also those of cinematographer Michael Seresin and film editor Gerry Hambling.  And perhaps an even more notable contribution was the screenplay by Oliver Stone, which turned out to be this ultimately famous writer-director’s initial breakthrough into big time Hollywood cinema.  In the end, Midnight Express was nominated for six Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (John Hurt), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Oliver Stone), Best Film Editing (Gerry Hambling), and Best Original Score (Giorgio Moroder) – with Stone and Moroder taking top honours.  And the film was also nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or.

The story of Midnight Express takes the viewer on a journey that amounts to a descent into hell.  This goes through four stages.

1.  Incarceration
In October 1970, an American student on holiday in Istanbul, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), nervously straps 2kg of hashish to his chest and under his shirt prior to his return flight to the States.  But just before boarding the plane with his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle), he is accosted by soldiers, and after a strip-search, his hashish is revealed, and he is arrested.

Hoping for some leniency, Billy says he bought the hashish from a cabbie, and he takes the police there to identify him.  While the police are occupied with the cabbie’s arrest, Billy sees his chance to escape, and he runs off into the local neighbourhood looking for a place to hide.  But the police recapture him and throw him into prison.  So right away we can see that Billy is not exactly an innocent type.  He is a lawbreaking opportunist.  But because of the adroitly subjective way these scenes are filmed, the viewer can’t help from identifying with Billy’s plight.

On his first night in jail, Billy is freezing cold, and surprised to find his jail cell door unlocked, he sneaks out temporarily to steal a blanket for himself.  But a few hours later, he is awakened by chief guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith) and severely thrashed for his offence.  So now the narrative goal is set: how to get out of this rough confinement.  And our protagonist has a serious antagonist: Hamidou.

2.  An Alliance in Prison
When a few days later Billy comes to, he finds himself in a large prison and hooks up with three fellow Western prisoners:
  • Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid), a brash American jailed for stealing just two candlesticks from a mosque,
  • Max (John Hurt, who would perform famously the following year in Alien (1979)), a mild-mannered English heroin addict, and
  • Erich (Norbert Weisser), a Swede who is also in for drug smuggling.
Together these four attempt to maintain their equanimity in the chaotic circumstances of the prison yard.  

Soon Billy’s father, along with a US government rep and a somewhat greasy Turkish lawyer, come to talk to Billy and prepare him prior to his trial.  At the trial, although the prosecutor wants Billy to get a life sentence for drug smuggling, the judge gives him a four-year sentence for drug possession, which his Turkish lawyer thinks is a good outcome.  Even so, Billy is crushed with the realization that he faces several more years in prison.

More and more, Billy is starting to realize that he has to find a way out of this hell hole.  He will have to escape by taking, what is known in prisoners’ parlance as, the “midnight express”.

Later, in April 1972, Jimmy tries to recruit Billy for his planned escape over the roof.  Billy balks, and so the headstrong Jimmy goes it alone.  But in the event, Jimmy is caught and severely beaten, leaving him with some permanent injuries.  So Billy’s supportive alliance has for the time being been weakened, and it is then further weakened when his friend Erich is released from prison.

Finally, in June 1974, just 53 days before his expected release, Billy learns that his original sentence has been overturned by a Turkish high court, and that he has now been found guilty of smuggling, not the lesser original charge of possession. So now he has to serve 30 years for his crime, and his downward spiral into hell continues without letup.

3.  Desperate Moves
So, with Jimmy now mostly recovered and back in action, Billy and Max agree to join another of Jimmy’s desperate escape plans – this time through the neglected catacombs below the prison.  But when they dig through the wall and climb down into the catacombs, they run into blockages that delay their progress.  And then their continued plans are revealed to the authorities by fellow prisoner Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), a generally despised Turkish rat-fink, who fingers Jimmy to Hamidou again.  Again Jimmy is severely beaten, this time putting him permanently out of action. 

In revenge, Max and Billy arrange to destroy Rifki’s private and hidden money cache.  But now Rifki fingers his longtime enemy Max for punishment, and this finally pushes Billy over the edge.  Billy has so far been facing a relentless sequence of physical and mental torture from Hamidou, and he now goes completely berserk.  He goes on a crazed, violent rampage against Rifki in the prisoners’ common room, culminating in his biting off of Rifki’s tongue.  For this madness, Billy is sent to the prison ward for the insane.

4.  An Unlikely Way Out
Seven months later, in January 1975, Billy’s girlfriend Susan visits him in prison and is horrified by the condition she sees he is in.  Knowing that he can’t go on much longer, she manages to secretly pass some money hidden in a scrapbook to Billy and urges him to do whatever he can to escape. 

With some of this money, Billy, still somewhat dazed by his tormented mental state, manages to try and bribe Hamidou into taking him to a less-guarded area.  But Hamidou takes him to an empty room and prepares to rape him. With all his remaining energy, Billy makes a sudden lunge at Hamidou and inadvertently kills him by pushing the back of his nemesis’s head onto a coat hook.  Still in a daze, Billy looks down at the unexpectedly dead body and tries to fathom what has just happened.  Then he puts on a guard's uniform and walks outside to freedom.

The film’s final snapshots show that Billy eventually made it to Greece and later home to America. 

Midnight Express’s sudden and improbable ending differs from Hayes’s own account [3], but it contributes to the relentless tempo of out-of-control oppression that the protagonists in the film face.  This is truly a horror film portraying a world of unending punishment and pain.  Only a seemingly divine act of forgiveness (or simply an unfathomable stroke of good luck) can rescue our main character, and nether his virtues nor his vices seem to have anything to do with his deliverance.

Now you might think that, based on the account I have just given, I found Midnight Express to be empty and pointless.  But that is not true; I found the film to be a compelling existentialist thriller.  What we have here is a vulnerable and compromised protagonist, Billy Hayes, struggling to survive in an enclosed world dominated by the relentlessly sadistic and ominous Hamidou.  Thanks to the film’s artful direction, screen-writing, cinematography, editing, and acting, the viewer is compelled to follow Billy’s anguished struggle all the way.  It is the kind of tale told by the likes of Hesse, Kafka, and Camus, full of sound and fury, and signifying only brute existential longing.

  1. “Reception”, “Midnight Express (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 March 2020).     
  2. Eli Kooris, “Midnight Express”, Austin Chronicle, (15 February 1999).   
  3. “Differences between the book and the film”, “Midnight Express (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 March 2020).   
  4. "Billy Hayes (writer)”, Wikipedia, (5 April 2020).   
  5. Roger Ebert,  “Midnight Express”, RogerEbert.com, (6 October 1978).   

No comments: