Directed By: Alan Parker
Written By: Oliver Stone (based on the book Midnight Express by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer)
Starring: Brad Davis, Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Paul L. Smith
The first ten minutes of Midnight Express are so uneasy and palpably tense that watching them you’d swear we’ve mistakenly hit the ground at the thrilling climax. We get a series of close ups on Brad Davis’s dripping face, the soundscape thumping in synchronicity to his shattering heartbeat as he twitchily navigates a Turkish airport with two kilograms of hash taped to his chest. The way this sequence must end is foregone (we know this is a prison drama, so our protagonist must wind up in prison,) but the inevitability makes it all the more terrifying. And director Alan Parker never grants us a great deal of respite. When Midnight Express isn’t painfully tense, it continues to brutalise us through the suffering of its characters.
The true story from which the film stems has been dramatized, but that doesn’t make its experience any less authentic. It’s about an American youth, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis,) who, when we first meet him, doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He unwittingly attempts to smuggle hashish from Istanbul back to America, but it’s apparent from Billy’s nervous demeanour that he’s no player in the drug trade. Rather his chief crime is being an ignorant young man. It’s this central, benign conceit to the character which allows the film to ask for our sympathy without being unreasonable. Billy’s plight is an affecting one, even if he has no one to thank for his position but himself. And his position is a dire one. Billy’s idiocy leads him to an impossibly dank and sadistic Turkish prison, one which assumes incorrigibility on behalf of all who are unlucky enough to be there.
We learn quickly that the entire Turkish legal system is a foul administration, where if you’re found innocent it’s by accident and lawyers, we’re told, can be disbarred for honesty. The most minor discrepancies are exploited by the system in order to make examples of unweary foreigners. One of Billy’s American compatriots in the prison, Jimmy, a fiery, rabblerouser (Randy Quaid,) is serving time for stealing candlesticks. No one comes to feel the physical torment more than him. Erich (Norbert Weisser), provides a semblance of calm, a gentle Swedish man serving twelve years for carrying 100 grams of the same drug as Billy. Eccentric Brit Max (a terrific John Hurt), is the most worn down by the prison. He’s been there longer than anyone, seven years and counting, and he passes his days through stupefying himself with drugs. The men find fleeting moments of quietened pain in one another, with Jimmy, Max and Billy musing over one day catching the Midnight Express (prison lingo for escape) to bring their hell to an end. Indeed, when the three determine to put their musings into practice, the film finds more of that tremendous, tension addled drama that is at once entrancing and painful.
Typically pig like is the perennially sweat soaked head guard Hamidou (played by Paul Smith), whose calling card is to string up tethered prisoners and beat them over the souls of their feet with a bat. If there’s one minor short coming in the film, it’s the reductive treatment of the Turks. There’s only a short trip between Hamidou and the best of them. Alan Parker and writer Oliver Stone are content to tarnish the whole nation with the same depraved brush, but this flawed generalisation at least has its purpose. It augments that sense of futility that plagues Billy, that sense of being inescapably trapped by a whole nation out to get him. And regardless, Midnight Express is not an assessment of the Turkish people, but rather a study of man’s limits.
What the film depicts is a most gut-wrenching devolution, one which is constructed with such a sense of empathy that it forces us not only to share in Billy’s suffering, but to live it. We’re with Billy for every step of his torment; his rage, his sadness, his desperation all become our own. There are moments in which he descends into utter contemptuousness, but the film has made his pain so understandable that we could hardly fault him.
There are two key scenes: one in which Billy savagely berates a Turkish courtroom after his sentence is enlarged, and one in which Billy physically brutalises another inmate. The moments signal the total descent of a young man who slips further from rehabilitation with each day, but so aligned we are with him that his savagery becomes almost cathartic to watch. It’s a terrifying practice as a viewer. Not only do we not judge Billy for his heinous bursts, but we revel in them.
This is a merciless film. I’ve always felt of the best movies that the experience of watching them is as close as I’ll ever get to the worlds they depict. Watching Goodfellas is my chance to live like a gangster, to inhabit that stylish criminal underworld. Saving Private Ryan is my rub with World War II. Midnight Express is one of these films, and I hope it’s as close as I will ever get to its world. Indeed, Parker’s vision may be too close for comfort.