Great Movies: Midnight Express

By Christian DiMartino

At the time of Alan Parker’s death a few weeks ago, his final cinematic outing was The Life of David Gale, a movie that isn’t exactly… good (Roger Ebert, in fact, gave it zero stars). Upon hearing of his death, that was not the film that came to mind, and for obvious reasons. Rather, his death stung because of his great films, and I knew I had to revisit those as soon as possible. Now, I have.

The last time I saw Midnight Express was in 2015, so if we’re being technical, this film should probably be under the “A Trip Back To” category. Yet typically with those films, I review them to see if my opinion has changed over the years, and with Midnight Express, there wasn’t a doubt that my opinion would change. I had only seen the film once, but it was one that certainly stuck with me. One that I always urged people to watch, even though I myself had only seen it once.

Midnight Express, Parker’s second film following Bugsy Malone (which I reviewed the other day), is certainly not an easy film to sit through. It is a great film because of the reaction it pulls out of its audience, but also in a number of other ways. It walks a very unique line in telling the story of Billy Hayes, a man who, despite his horrendous circumstances, is still a criminal. As a viewer though, one must place themselves in Hayes’ shoes, and criminal or not, his story is still one that disturbs.

The film is a true story. When we first meet Hayes (the late Brad Davis), he is seen strapping bars and bars of Hashish to his body, and he attempts to smuggle it out of a Turkish airport. He is soon busted, and while in custody, he makes a run for it. That right there could cause one to lose any form of sympathy, because not only has Hayes been caught red-handed, but he also fled as a result, and was of course caught and brought back in.

His first night in the Turkish prison, as a result of grabbing a blanket, Hayes is beaten, and so is the bottom of his feet. When he wakes, he is greeted by two new friends (one of which is played by Randy Quaid, of sound body and mind) who show him the ropes of the prison and the rules. Basically, children are imprisoned, and beaten, and raped. At any moment, someone could sneak up behind and stab you in the ass. Not the place to be.

Billy is soon sentenced to about three years, which is fair. We must keep reminding ourselves that Billy is still a criminal… but also that Turkish prison is perhaps significantly worse than American prison. One of the most quietly unsettling moments in the film is right after Billy’s sentence. Seeing as his family, friends, and girlfriend all live in America, we know that despite his prison friends, he is all on his own from here on out. A glimmer of hope arrives whenever Billy has just 53 days left of his sentence… but it is not what it seems, and I will just leave it at that.

John Hurt is excellent here as a British junkie inmate who also befriends Billy and Co. The acting all around is pretty superb though. Hurt received an Oscar nomination here, while Davis didn’t. In a jam packed year, it is easy to understand why someone could be snubbed. Yet Davis’ performance is impressive for a number of reasons. One is because him and Parker sell us fully on Billy. He is a criminal, but he is also, let’s face it, a normal human being who made a really idiotic mistake and faced severe consequences. Much of this film rests on Davis’ shoulders too. That’s not to say that the supporting cast isn’t great, but there is hardly a frame in this film that Davis isn’t in. He does also get at least two huge showstoppers. The first being right after he gets perhaps the worst news he could have, and he let’s all of his anger and rage out on the Turkish authorities because, while it won’t do anything, it will bring him catharsis. The second is following a betrayal among a fellow inmate that nobody seems to like, in which Hayes goes ballistic.

In terms of prison movies, Midnight Express makes The Shawshank Redemption look like kids stuff. That’s not to say that this film is better, necessarily, but Parker succeeds in depicting this prison as a living hell on earth. He also succeeds in practically making this prison its own universe. We are disturbed by what we see, yet we believe every single ounce of it. Also, on a random note, I love Giorgio Moroder’s score- it’s the most beautifully, awesomely 70’s thing you’ll hear.

The screenplay was written by Oliver Stone, who won his first Oscar here. Some may argue that Stone is perhaps, ultimately, too sympathetic towards Hayes. To that I say, yes and no. Yes because Hayes was undeniably guilty, but also he was forced into a living hell and sentenced to life for smuggling. Smuggling, not murder. The sympathy, in my eyes, is ultimately earned because if it were me, I’d probably just kill myself. Then again, I wouldn’t smuggle drugs… anywhere, or any time. In the end though, guilty or not, Midnight Express is a triumph in the way that Hayes’ struggles ultimately win us over, and it’s really just an unforgettable, haunting triumph in general.

2 Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score

4 other Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Editing

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