Midnight Express (1978) is based on the true story of Billy Hayes, an American student who gets gets thrown into the prison in Turkey after he was caught smuggling drugs.
I’m very mixed about what to feel about Midnight Express. By now, I’m sure most people will know that this movie is highly fictionalized and exaggerated to a fairly large extent. Usually, I don’t mind that much when movies modify the truth a little in order to bring the message across to the audience more effectively. For instance, I admit that the russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter (supposedly) did not happen, and yet its message about the horrors of war is relevant and truthful. Midnight Express, however, has some modified elements to it that feels as if it is done so to purely ramp up the shock and controversy factor. For starters, the way it handles the Turkish people is unnecessarily offensive, in my opinion. Sure, it’s understandable that the film is bound to be quite biased (same can be said for The Deer Hunter), and I’m also not going to deny that there were problems with Turkey’s penal system and prisons, but over here it is really bothering on being hateful and vitriolic, almost taking a tone that suggests the entire nation deserves to annihilated or something. Take the following dialogue, for instance:
[to the Turkish court] Billy Hayes: For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny you don’t eat’em! Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can’t! I hate! I hate you! I hate your nation! And I hate your people! And I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs! You’re a pig! You’re all pigs.
You know, my mouth literally dropped open when I saw this scene. Considering how the real Billy Hayes did not say this real life (he was critical of the penal system, but he respected the people), it made my respect for the film drop. By quite a bit. What was the point of this? To just “shock”, as director Alan Parker put it? To create hate? This wasn’t just a use of “metaphors”, it’s really bringing across a hateful message. Throughout the entire film, you get this feeling that a lot of scenes are gratuitous purely for the sake of it, and just a simple Google search alone will tell you that a lot of the brutal beatings, attempted rape and violence the main character endured did not occur. Then why portray it as so? To make things even more gruesome for the sake of it? I’m not saying that what happened to Billy wasn’t horrible, because had it been more truthful, less biased and less violent, the message could actually have been even more effective (and I dare say harrowing) because of the realism. For your information, screenwriter Oliver Stone who WON the Oscar for his work here apologised in 2004 for the film’s portrayal of Turkey, so…
Still, on a technical level, I must say the film is really well-made. If we just take a moment ignore the huge discrepancies between what really happened and the script, there are actually quite a few things that are praiseworthy. The direction by Alan Parker, though manipulative, is actually good, and deserving of the nomination. The claustrophobic interiors of the prison, and the main character’s slow descend into madness and depression are very well handled. Although I have my issues with the film’s content, it is actually constantly engaging without a single boring moment (too many shocking scenes, I guess). There are some “metaphors” here and there that are a bit obvious, like a particular sequence where the prisoners are walking in circles while the main character chooses to go the other way, but it wasn’t on a level that bothered me hugely. I guess you can say that as a prison drama, it’s a solid one with interesting characters and very strong acting. I really, really liked Brad Davis’ leading performance here. Yes, he had to deliver that offensive speech and succumb to some of the film’s manipulative moments (a particular scene involving tongues), but acting wise he really showed the character’s transformation from a naive outsider to a hardened prisoner. It’s really quite heartbreaking to see his slow descend into madness, especially towards the end. He might even have deserved that Oscar nomination over Warren Beatty. The same can be said of John Hurt, who received his first Oscar nomination for his performance here as Max, the slightly mad, cynical yet sharp prisoner. In other years, like 1976 and 1977, he might even be my personal pick for the Oscar, but Christopher Walken’s performance this year is just way too outstanding to ignore. I must say though, I wasn’t that big a fan of the film’s Oscar winning score…it was memorable for sure, but I found it a bit distracting. For some reason, the chase sequence reminded me of Night of The Demons (1988), with Angela chasing down Judy the corridor lol. I know, I know…weird. The ending score was pretty great though.
So…like I said, I really don’t know what to make out of Midnight Express. Technically, it is an excellently made film and if I just accept it on a surface level and buy the messages it is trying bring across…sure, it’s fantastic and emotionally powerful. However, the story has way too many unnecessary distortions and manipulative elements intended to purely create shock and disgust that it feels a bit insulting to the true story. I don’t know…3 to 3.5/5 for me.
“In fact, the Turks were more concerned about me — my own physical safety — because the film was so derogatory against Turkey and the Turks. It destroyed the tourist industry for years and created this overall impression in the world — that they’re still dealing with — which was “Oh my God, Turkey, ‘Midnight Express.’ We don’t want to go there.” And the Turks who brought me back were actually very worried about my safety. So they actually took very good care of me.” – Billy Hayes, after the film was made.