June 3, 2011
Movies Revisited: Midnight Express (1978)
"The concept of a society is based on the quality of mercy," pleads Brad Davis' character Billy Hayes in the film we're revisiting this week. Midnight Express, (MRQE Metric: 70) released in 1978, is a definitive prison drama/escape thriller. Before OZ, Prison Break or The Shawshank Redemption, it was this Oscar-winning screenplay written by Oliver Stone that shocked audiences with its graphic portrayal of an American's experience abroad in a Turkish prison.
The film starts with Billy Hayes, a brash young traveler making his way through a Turkish airport with his girlfriend, and some local hashish he has strapped to his chest with the intention of selling to friends back home. During a search, moments before boarding, authorities arrest Billy for smuggling. While in custody, Billy tries to negotiate his release by revealing the identity of his dealer. But he tries to escape during the planned operation. After re-capture, he is sentenced to four years and two months in a Turkish prison for drug possession.
In prison, Billy meets three men: an American named Jimmy (Randy Quaid), a Swede named Erich and a Brit named Max (John Hurt). They fill Billy in on his situation, and it's not good. This is certainly not the Istanbul one would see in a brochure. Billy's father visits (by way of a sealed-off stay at the local Hilton) in an attempt to get his son released, but to no avail. And so Billy struggles to keep his sanity, despite regular beatings, violence amongst derelict prisoners and a harsh judicial system that makes American drug policy look lenient.
After learning that his four-year term has been extended to a life-sentence (Turkish court wants to make an example of his case to the world), Billy decides to take matters into his own hands. We learn that "The Midnight Express" is actually a prison term for escape. And that's precisely what Billy tries to accomplish. Of course not before (SPOILER) biting the tongue off an inmate and getting locked away in a ward for the criminally insane.
I don't mean to draw attention to Midnight Express' more gruesome moments. Despite the fact that this movie may best be remembered for a few attention-getting scenes (one of which was effectively re-enacted by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy.)
In actuality, Midnight Express holds up very well. Thanks especially to a brilliant synth score by Giorgio Moroder, great performances by Randy Quaid, John Hurt and lead actor Brad Davis, and an unforgiving screenplay adapted from real-life Billy Hayes' best-selling memoir.
This is an intense film. You feel the heat from the sweltering streets of Turkey from the get-go; it seems to affect every character in a range of corrosive ways. And especially in its portrayal of Turkish authority, Stone did not hold back. The state of Turkey, and every guard, lawyer and merchant in it, seems villainous if not barbaric. This did not go unaddressed at the time. Following the film's release, Stone and Hayes were quick to issue apologies for a generally gross depiction of the Middle Eastern nation's inhabitants. And certain aspects of Hayes' story were clearly exaggerated by Stone (the tongue bite).
But the core issue concerning the treatment of foreigners charged with crimes abroad remains a topical issue today. And this film certainly serves as a warning to all druggies looking to get one past airport security.
All-in-all, Midnight Express is an awesome film. It's playing on Turner Classic this month, and rightfully so-this one is a classic.