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Midnight Express
30th Anniversary Edition

Midnight Express
1978 /Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date February 5, 2008 / 19.94
Starring Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul L. Smith, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser, John Hurt, Mike Kellin
Cinematography Michael Seresin
Production Design Geoffrey Kirkland
Art Direction Evan Hercules
Film Editor Gerry Hambling
Original Music Giorgio Moroder
Written by Oliver Stone from the book by Billy Hayes & William Hoffer
Produced by Alan Marshall, David Puttnam
Directed by Alan Parker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Alan Parker's 1978 Midnight Express serves as an effective public service message to naïve young Americans entertaining thoughts of smuggling drugs from foreign countries. Based on a novel by Billy Hayes, who spent five years in an Istanbul prison, the frightening and convincing movie shows just how much trouble a foolish kid from the states can get into.

The impression given is that Turkey is a country of barbaric savages -- nobody forgets the image of hulking Hamidou (Paul Smith), a depraved brute given full license to abuse his prisoners. Turkey protested the film's portrayal of their country almost immediately, and in the years after the release of Midnight Express Billy Hayes admitted that his book exaggerated conditions in the prison where he was held. Midnight Express now stands as a handsomely-filmed exploitation film that preys upon Western prejudices and xenophobia.


20 year-old American tourist Billy Hayes is caught attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish through the Istanbul airport. He's sentenced to four years in a hellhole prison rife with corruption and brutality, where brutal guards beat and sodomize the prisoners at will. Billy has served almost his full sentence, when he's notified that the Ankara courts have opted to make a 'war on drugs' example of him by changing his sentence to 30 years. From that point on Billy realizes he must escape at any price.

Alan Parker has always been able to put together a good-looking movie. Midnight Express is directed with skill in a style that holds up well today: its visuals are spare, unfussy and to the point. Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning script tells the tale with a minimum of exposition, allowing us to discover the horrors of the Istanbul prison along with Brad Davis' traumatized Billy Hayes. We only know what Hayes knows. A cagey American (Bo Hopkins) working with the Istanbul police lets Hayes think that he's associated with the American consulate. Hayes can't really communicate with any of his captors or jailers. They spend most of their time screaming at him in a foreign language, or beating him senseless.

Hayes holds out over the years, bonding with his lost-soul cellmates, Randy Quaid's American and John Hurt's Englishman. They even attempt a daring escape reminiscent of the superb French prison drama Le Trou. But their time together is mostly a grueling ordeal. The open-plan prison allows the convicts to prey upon each other, and leaves our friends at the mercy of Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), a filthy snitch and favor broker who cheats them at every opportunity and sells them bad hashish. Ironically, drugs run wild in this prison filled with drug offenders. Five years into his sentence, Hayes has been reduced to a babbling fool. His girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle, of Dario Argento's Inferno) visits and is appalled at his physical and mental condition. But an escape opportunity eventually presents itself.

The problem with Midnight Express is that it is fundamentally dishonest. The filmmakers accept without question author Billy Hayes' contention that Turkey is an unjust and barbaric land of pigs. The script blames Richard Nixon's drug policies for encouraging the Turkish legal system to re-sentence Billy to 30 years, as if disproportionate drug sentences weren't common in the U.S.. Billy Hayes is given a chance to speak his mind in court. He uses it to unleash a blast of invectives against his Turkish captors, who presumably don't understand what he is saying. Billy's tirade expresses his rage well enough, but he comes off more like Charlie Manson in the telefilm Helter Skelter.

Billy's speech encourages us to hate the Turks as much as he does, and Oliver Stone's un-researched Midnight Express script has plenty more scenes that pander to the fears and prejudices of the audience. Scenes allude to mass rapes, even involving children, who are apparently incarcerated with adult men. Parker provides plenty of homoerotic content, especially in Billy's relationship with Swedish prisoner Erich (Norbert Weisser). They're filmed in loving soft focus, exercising together and eventually kissing, at which point Billy appears to beg off further involvement.

Stone's screenplay also finds a way to bare the breasts of the film's one female character, thus checking off another hot content item. Billy's eventual escape is certainly credible, but Stone knows that's not enough. The film indulges the audience's desire for bloody payback by making sure that Billy gets to revenge himself on the loathsome Rifki and Hamidou.

Brad Davis embodies Billy Hayes' callow confusion, smiling cluelessly while posing for a police photo with his captors. Randy Quaid and John Hurt express frustration and despair in heavy doses, and Mike Kellin is Hayes' distraught father. Paul Smith (Popeye, Dune) is unforgettable as the horrible Hamidou. Alan Parker further smears Turkey by having Hamidou bring his fat little monster kids to watch him ritually beat prisoner children. Not much subtlety there.

Midnight Express is an accomplished account of a harrowing ordeal. But at heart it's as primitive as a redneck revenge saga or a xenophobic Rambo movie. It says that American and British kids that commit serious crimes overseas are only 'making mistakes' and shouldn't be held liable for the consequences of their actions. The film demonizes non-Western countries and Turkey in particular -- many Americans only 'know' Turkey through this biased movie.

Sony's 30th Anniversary Edition DVD of Midnight Express presents Alan Parker's handsome film in an ideal enhanced transfer that looks better than general release prints from 1978. Giorgio Moroder's Oscar-winning synth score no longer impresses as it once did, but the recording is good in DD5.1 and the original mono.

Alan Parker provides a full commentary for his very successful show. Parker, producers David Puttnam & Peter Guber, John Hurt, Oliver Stone and others contribute to three lengthy interview featurettes. We learn that the film was made in Malta, and the un-subtitled 'Turkish' heard in the film is really Maltese and Greek. Parker insists that he had no intention of disparaging Turkey, but his Mississippi Burning also distorts its subject matter, championing the F.B.I. as the defenders of Civil Rights in the murders of young activists in the early 1960s.

The disc has an attractive photo gallery set to music and a sturdy booklet with Alan Parker's essay about the making of the film. Sony's disc package copy calls Billy Hayes a "victim of ineffectual diplomacy" and compounds the film's factual lapses by calling it "an unforgettable look at one of the most dangerous prisons in the world."

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Midnight Express rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English and French DD 5.1, English mono
Supplements: Commentary by Alan Parker. Interview featurettes, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: February 10, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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