Alan Parker, Americans abroad, Angela's Ashes, auteur theory, based on a book, based on a true story, Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Best Director nominee, Best Original Score winner, Best Picture nominee, Best Supporting Actor nominee, Billy Hayes, Bo Hopkins, Brad Davis, buddy films, cinema, college student, critically-acclaimed films, dark films, drama, drug smuggling, drug trafficking, electronic score, Erich, escape from prison, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Giorgio Moroder, Hamidou, homoerotic tension, homophobia, Irene Miracle, jail-break, Jimmy Booth, John Hurt, legal nightmare, Max, Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, Movies, multiple Golden Globe winner, multiple Oscar winner, Norbert Weisser, Oliver Stone, Oscar nominee, Oscars, Palme d'Or nominee, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul Smith, prison films, Randy Quaid, Rifki, The Wall, Turkish prison, Vangelis
We’ve all done stupid things: that’s the one constant across humanity, regardless of age, race, gender, creed, nationality, income level or relative place in the historical timeline (cavemen did stupid things, too). Part of the human experience is learning and one of the best ways to learn something is to royally screw it up. Touch the open flame once and you know not to touch it again. Poke the tiger? Not twice, you won’t. We’ve all said and done things that were stupid: many of us may have even done things that were stupid and illegal (never a great combo). For the most part, any and everything is a good excuse for a learning opportunity: after all, many of the most powerful and respected people in the world have pasts that are littered with everything from petty crimes to outrageous public declarations. As long as your stupidity doesn’t actively hurt someone else and you’re given the opportunity to learn and grow from the situation, what’s the big deal? In fact, the whole point of youth is to be stupid, make mistakes and learn from them: it’s the “entry-level-fast-food-job/internship” phase of life, setting you up for the “responsible career” phase that’s to come.
But what if you make that one stupid mistake and, rather than a learning experience, it becomes a game-ender? Normal, average people make stupid choices and screw things up everyday: what if your “mistake” was so serious that it landed you in prison? What if you were a young, naive American college student, facing a life sentence in a harsh, barbaric Turkish prison? If you were Billy Hayes in the 1970s, these wouldn’t be questions: they would be facts. Alan Parker’s critically acclaimed Midnight Express takes viewers into Billy’s world and shows how the stupidest actions can have the most dire of consequences. In the process, it also shows us that most miraculous of human traits: the ability to hold on to hope, even when all hope seems lost.
Midnight Express begins with Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) making one of those aforementioned stupid decisions: he opts to smuggle (or attempt to smuggle, as it were) hashish out of Turkey. Even better, he does this in the dawning years of the 1970’s, during a time when Turkey and the Middle East were experiencing particularly high levels of terrorist attacks. As such, authorities are ever vigilant and Billy…well, he’s a bit of a dumb-ass. After sweating, stuttering and barely inching his way past airport security, he ends up on an Amtrak track that, unfortunately, passes through a security checkpoint. A cursory pat-down reveals the dope and our poor schmuck begins his journey down a very long, dark, grim pathway.
After a failed escape attempt, Billy winds up in a Turkish prison, where he promptly runs afoul of head guard Hamidou (Paul Smith), one of the vilest cinematic creations ever shat unto the big-screen. Hamidou beats Billy senseless for having the temerity to take a blanket and, when he comes to, he’s being cared for by a trio of prisoners: crazy-eyed Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid), strung-out philosopher Max (John Hurt) and gentle Erich (Norbert Weisser). They quickly show Billy the ropes and cue him in on a few important facts: Steer clear of Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), a nasty prisoner who rats out other prisoners for money; be careful of the children who run around everywhere, since they’re as untrustworthy as the guards and Rifki; all foreigners and homosexuals are considered scum but almost all prisoners practice homosexuality when no one is looking; for the right price, the Turkish legal system can be bought and sold; and, perhaps most importantly: once you’re inside, you’re probably not getting outside.
In due time, Billy’s life becomes a waking nightmare of harsh conditions (the prison is like a squalid, rat-trap hotel where the concierges occasionally beat you so bad that you herniate), a bizarre, nonsensical legal system (Billy can’t even understand the language during his trial, much less offer any useful defense) and the constant, terrifying notion that he’s doomed to spend the rest of his days in this living hell. When his original “generous” sentence of 4 years is over-turned for a more “reasonable” 30-year sentence, Billy finally decides to jump onto Jimmy’s crazy train and attempt a prison breakout. As expected, this doesn’t go quite as planned, leading to more confrontations with Hamidou and Rifki, as well as a long-in-the-making mental breakdown for Billy. After a certain point, Billy’s life seems completely hopeless. If he can just manage to keep his head above water, however, there just might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all.
In certain ways, Midnight Express is a strictly by-the-book prison film, one of those myriad productions where a “good” person ends up in the pokey and must adapt to survive. The Turkish setting is certainly novel, although anyone who grew up on any of the faceless, Philippine-set prison films of the late-’60s and ’70s won’t find much to be surprised by here. The setting certainly does give the filmmakers ample opportunity to play up the disparity between the Westerners and the native Turks but, more often than not, it devolves simply into “complex Westerners” vs “feral, rabid, caveman Turks.” In hindsight, there really aren’t any positive portrayals of Middle Eastern characters in the film: they’re all either vicious, sneering sadists or bumbling, incompetent Keystone Kops. Since the screenplay is written by Oliver Stone (for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), I wasn’t particularly surprised by this but it was, nonetheless, fairly tiresome. By the time we get to Rifki hanging a cute kitten and Hamidou attempting to violently rape Billy, the “villains” don’t resemble humans so much as fairy-tale ogres. Since the actual Billy Hayes has complained about the negative portrayals of Turkish characters in the film, this seems to be a problem that at least a few folks have had.
Since the film tends to be a fairly standard “men-in-prison” film, it also features plenty of familiar beats: the newbie getting instructed on the lay of the land; the intricate escape plans; the scene where a friendly character is falsely blamed for something; the homoerotic tension between cellmates; the rat; the vicious head-guard. None of these are particularly unique and the only aspect that has the potential to bear interesting fruit (the homoerotic tension between Billy and Erich) is dispensed with pretty quickly. Since this is a film adaptation of a true story, I wasn’t expecting anything particularly “tricky,” as it were, but much of Midnight Express seemed rather old-hat to me Perhaps my opinion would have been different had I seen it when it was released (you know…when I was 1) but decades of prison films since have neutered its impact a bit. Don’t get me wrong: the film is still intensely grim — the scene where a screaming Randy Quaid gets dragged out to be beaten so bad that he’ll lose a testicle is not something that anyone will forget easily — but it’s also not something inherently “fresh” or shocking.
My other major complaint with the film definitely revolves around the musical score by Giorgio Moroder, which inexplicably won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. There are times when the score seems unobtrusive (not high praise, mind you) but, for the most part, it sticks out like a sore thumb. One of the silliest moments has to be Billy’s initial escape from police custody, before he reaches the prison. His escape attempt is scored by some truly ludicrous electro music, complete with laser sound effects: not only does it do nothing to create tension, the score actually made me burst out laughing, which (presumably) wasn’t the desired effect. Later on, Billy mopes about the prison grounds as a moody electronic score plays: I’m pretty sure the intent was something similar to Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner but, again, the execution just doesn’t produce anything but groans. I’m actually a big Giorgio Moroder fan and was pretty excited when I saw his name in the credits: this, however, was like getting coal for Christmas.
On the other hand, the things that work in Midnight Express work fairly well. The performances are uniformly good, with special praise due for Quaid and Hurt’s rock-solid turns as Billy’s only friends. Quaid’s performance is a good reminder that, once upon a time, he was an actor to take seriously. Paul Smith and Paolo Bonacelli are absolutely phenomenal as Hamidou and Rifki, with Bonacelli especially noteworthy. Truly detestable villains are hard to pull off and Midnight Express’ pair of baddies are almost an embarrassment of riches. The only “main” character that seems to get short shrift is Billy’s girlfriend Susan, played by Irene Miracle. Miracle does just fine with what she’s given but she’s not given much: the emotional climax of her character is definitely the moment where she bares her breasts for Billy during a jail visitation but Brad Davis ends up doing most of the heavy lifting. Likewise, Mike Kellin, playing Billy’s dad, is pretty much a non-entity, his participation in events essentially boiling down to the moment where he tells Hamidou to “take good care of (Billy), you Turkish bastard.”
Overall, Midnight Express exists as one of those “critically over-acclaimed” films that can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment, especially when one considers previous films in director Parker’s canon, films like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Mississippi Burning and Angela’s Ashes. As your standard “men in prison must escape” film, Midnight Express is good but nothing legendary. When the film is more understated, it works quite well, although it too frequently lapses into melodrama and overwrought theatrics (the scene where Billy breaks down in court is particularly over-the-top).
As I stated earlier, however, it’s a little hard to fully get behind Billy’s plight since his own stupidity got him there in the first place. It was much easier to sympathize with Jimmy (in prison for stealing two candlesticks from a church) and Max (a heroin junkie) than it was to support Billy: the others were people caught in bad situations, whereas this dumbass college student put himself there…big difference. As a study in people making bad decisions, Midnight Express has to be one of the most on-the-noise. As a prison film, it’s pretty standard fare. As a character study, however, it just doesn’t seem like it has a lot to say.