Sony // 1978 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 15th, 2008
Max: The best thing to do is to get your ass out of here. Best way that you
Billy Hayes: Yeah, but how?
Max: Catch the midnight express.
Billy Hayes: But what's that?
Max: Well it's not a train. It's a prison word for...escape. But it doesn't stop around here.
A young American tourist is caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, gets thrown in to jail, and inspires generations of "Turkish prison" jokes. Unfortunately, the inspiration for those jokes, which is based on a true story, is neither funny or fun to watch; rather, Midnight Express is a bleak, depressing experience that has re-emerged for a solid 30th Anniversary edition.
On October 6th, 1970, American-born citizen Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, Chariots of Fire) was arrested for trying to leave Turkey with a large amount of hashish taped to his torso. Separated from his girlfriend and adrift in a sea of Turkish dialects, Billy finds himself locked away in an Istanbul prison with a jail sentence of a year. It doesn't take long, however, for Billy's liberties to fade away and his sentence to lengthen to over thirty years. There seems to be no end in sight to his living hell inside of this ruthless, barbaric Turkish prison...
Written by an up-and-coming Oliver Stone, Midnight Express debuted in 1978 and went on to win six Golden Globes and two Academy Awards.
Midnight Express begins with a heart beat as Billy Hayes is seen nervously wrapping and taping bricks of hashish to his body in preparation for a long flight out of Turkey. There's no setup as to what Billy and his girlfriend Susan are doing in Turkey, and the audience is given no time to get to know Billy. Before you know it, he's being frisked, cuffed, and whisked away to a police station. So starts a long, grueling film that manages to be bleak, depressing, and disturbing with next-to-know emotional payoff or optimism.
In its day, Midnight Express debuted with plenty of controversy, and watching it now for the first time, it's easy to see why. Oliver Stone's script, along with Alan Parker's direction, offers little in terms of like-ability, especially for the people of Turkey. Understandably, the Turkish government was royally upset about the film, which portrays them as a barbaric, conniving rapists. It's hard to watch even if you aren't Turkish: the amount of physical and psychological torture that Billy Hayes endures in this movie is astounding. Regardless of how true any of it is (Parker admits much of it is exaggerated), the movie successfully breaks the viewer out of his or her comfort zone and provides an uncomfortable, almost unwatchable experience -- that is, if the whole thing didn't look so good.
Alan Parker's vision of a bleak, almost pre-modern Turkey is beautifully and thoughtfully framed. Considering that much of the film was shot in Malta (because Turkey rightfully wanted nothing to do with the movie), it's impressive to see such expansive exterior establishing shots. These contrast nicely with the dark, textured interior of the Turkish prison, which slowly takes on a life of its own. Perhaps some of the best scenes in the movie, in terms of construction, take place after Hayes has been moved to the psyche ward. In the basement of the ward, mentally unstable inmates march in circles around a solitary pillar (a good Turk always marches to the right, by the way). The scenes within the psyche ward are also some of the most haunting, plus the fact that most of the dialogue is in un-subtitled Turkish helps, too.
While the quality of the cinematography remains high for the duration of the movie, any redeeming or like-able aspects of the story or characters vanishes around the fifteen minute mark. Unlike other prison escape movies, like Escape from Alcatraz or The Shawshank Redemption, there was never a point in the film where I was rooting for the inmates to make their escape. Like many later Oliver Stone films, there simply isn't a relatable character in the bunch. Billy Hayes was arrested trying to smuggle drugs out of a foreign country, am I supposed to feel sorry for him? Every character that Billy encounters inside of the prison, including Randy Quaid (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) as the excitably violent hippy and John Hurt (V for Vendetta) as the burnt out British hippy, are as grizzled and emotionally broken as Billy eventually becomes. Parker says that this movie was written in a fervor by an Oliver Stone angry at unjust foreign prisons, but there was never a moment in this movie where I was ready to stand alongside him and pump my fist in agreement. It's clear that we're supposed to be inspired by Billy's never-ending hope for freedom (it even says "It's about never giving up hope" on the cover of the box), but I never felt like his character really exhibited that emotion. In fact, I'm pretty sure he gives up around the point of his long "Turkey's full of pigs" monologue.
That isn't to say that the acting in the film is poor. To the contrary, Brad Davis does a remarkable job in what had to have been an extremely difficult role to play. His descent in to madness feels completely realistic, even if our ignorance to the character's real personality keeps us from truly feeling heartbroken for him. His supporting cast of inmates, especially Quaid and Hurt, are also excellent. Credit needs to be given to the large cast of mostly Italian and Greek actors who portrayed many of the Turks. While they may not represent true Turkish people, they come off feeling like realistic barbarians, thieves, and scoundrels.
One aspect of the film that doesn't seem to click is Billy's girlfriend, Susan (played dutifully by Irene Miracle). In the original story, Billy isn't over in Turkey with his girlfriend; she appears to be added so that there can at least be a little bit of a love story inspiring Billy's "unending hope." Aside from the fact that this feels like a shoe-horned Hollywood cliché, Susan also becomes the deus ex machina late in the movie, providing Billy with money for him to use to sneak home.
In the end, Billy makes what is one of the most anti-climactic prison breaks in recent memory. The credits roll and I am left feeling empty, kinda depressed, and not at all sorry for the character.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the film is the score, created by Giorgio Moroder (also the composer for Scarface). Midnight Express was the first film with a completely synthesized score to win an Academy Award for music, and in hindsight paved the way for the later synth-heavy films of the '80s. Where I'm tempted to argue that Vangelis's synth score for Bladerunner is fitting and timeless (given that it's a sci-fi movie), Moroder's score for Express feels terribly dated and somewhat inappropriate. I am usually a big fan of movies with a synth soundtrack, and there are a number of great sequences in this film where it works, but too often the dramatic weight of a scene is lessened due to the sudden appearance of a cheesy Moog.
Whether or not you enjoy the synthesized soundtrack, or appreciate the fantastic cinematography, both are preserved quite nicely in this 30th anniversary edition. The picture quality is well-balanced and relatively defect-free. This is, at times, a very dark film, and while it may be hard to figure out what's going on, the colors and black levels are well-balanced and sharp. Midnight Express comes with three different audio tracks: two Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks, one in English and one in French, and the film's original English mono track.
Packaged in this re-release is a set of well-produced and thorough special features. Director Alan Parker gives a thorough commentary, and even gets a little apologetic on us (he's not the only member of this film to apologize for vilifying an entire country, Stone went there in person in 2004). Along with the commentary is a three-part making-of documentary. Each section has uniformly high production values (for basically an interview series) and covers the producers, the production, and the finished film. It's quite insightful, especially if you don't want to re-watch the film with the commentary. Rounding out the DVD extras is a photo gallery and the film's trailer.
The most interesting aspect of this new release is what comes alongside the DVD in its cardboard slipcase: a making-of booklet written by director Alan Parker. This well-designed and candid book covers much of the subject matter addressed on the DVD extras, but from the often humorous perspective of Parker. There are some anecdotes, behind-the-scenes photos and story board sketches included in the pages. It's a surprisingly nice touch.
No where does it say that every film has to have a relatable or like-able character in it. Midnight Express openly admits early on that what Billy Hayes did was stupid and irresponsible; the message the film is trying to portray is that Billy's minor offense never deserved a sentence of thirty years in prison, nor did the prisons have to be as harsh and barbaric as they are. Parker's film seeks to make the audience feel at least a small portion of the torment and anxiety that Billy felt, and it was willing to stretch the truth for the greater good of conveying emotion and drama.
The film's demonization of Turks is pretty apparent and inarguable, sure; however, it's no worse than Hollywood's vilification of Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italians, and every other ethnic group around. The point is, every group is made into a bad guy when it needs to be in order to suit the overall need of a story. If the Turks in the film weren't Satan incarnate, then Billy's situation wouldn't have appeared as dire, and the dramatic weight would have been lightened.
On a solely artistic and technical level, Midnight Express is an admirable film. Alan Parker's direction and camera work is staged exceedingly well, and for that the film deserves credit. The acting is also extremely powerful and appropriate, with a disturbingly good performance by Brad Davis. Unfortunately, great camera work and acting can't make me feel hope or be uplifted by this bleak and cold story of torture in a Turkish prison. The film tries to base itself on a true story, but its jaunts away from the truth in some aspects and not others are questionable. It's obvious we're supposed to be inspired by Billy's hope, but there is little hope to be found.
Regardless of how I feel about the story, this 30th anniversary release has some quality special features and a cool booklet that make the set an appropriate tribute. If you're already a fan of the film, you'll want to pick this up. If you're just interested in a good prison movie, stick with Shawshank.
I find the defendant GUILTY and sentence him to 3 years to life in prison, depending on how I'm feeling tomorrow.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Alan Parker
* "The Producers" Featurette
* "The Production" Featurette
* "The Finished Film" Featurette
* Photo Gallery
* Booklet containing an essay by Alan Parker and a photo journal