Midnight Express (1978)

“The concept of a society is based on the quality of its mercy, its sense of fair play, its sense of justice.”

Synopsis:
Twenty-year-old Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling two kilos of hashish across the Turkish border, and sent to prison for three years. When he finds out his sentence has been extended to thirty years, he decides to break free via the “Midnight Express.”

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
The primary problem with this sensationalist movie (based on a true story) is that it’s impossible to feel much sympathy for the film’s protagonist. Played by Brad Davis (with, as Peary puts it, a “slight build and weak, guilty eyes”), he is so consistently stupid, whiny, and racist that any of the film’s other merits are overshadowed by one’s disdain for this insufferable American. As stated in the Prison Flicks review (see link below), Billy is basically a “spoiled brat” — after all, what kind of a moron would try to sneak two kilos of hash out of a foreign country, then yell out in a Turkish courthouse (in the middle of his own sentencing): “For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny you don’t eat ’em! I hate you, I hate your nation, and I hate your people! I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs!”

With that said, the movie is still quite powerful when it comes to showing the inhumanity of Turkish prisons; apparently negotiations began just a few months after the film’s release for the exchange of prisoners between America and Turkey. Since that time, however, several other (better) films have showcased similarly bleak situations for Americans stuck in international jails — for instance, 1998’s Return to Paradise (set in Malaysia) and 1999’s Brokedown Palace (set in Thailand). As Peary notes, “the wrong impression that many viewers [of Midnight Express] got is that such prisons are peculiar to Turkey and not found all over the world.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The genuinely tense opening sequence, when Billy fears (rightfully so) that he will be caught at the border
    Tension
  • Randy Quaid and John Hurt as Billy’s eccentric cellmates
    Hurt and Quaid
  • Effectively grim prison sets
    Prison

Must See?
No. While it holds some historical interest, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.

Links:

One Response to “Midnight Express (1978)”

  1. Agreed – not must-see.

    I hadn’t seen this since its release. It’s not the kind of film that a) once seen, is forgotten and b) allows you to get more out of it on a repeat viewing.

    But, for the purpose of this checklist, I watched it again. Interestingly, I listened to a little of the blu-ray disc commentary. Director Alan Parker concedes that the fierce treatment in prison is not unique to Turkey and that many countries have drug laws that are either harsh or incomprehensible. Certainly viewers do not have to depend on this one film to get information about that.

    Parker has also admitted elsewhere that, although this film is based on fact, that doesn’t mean that everything in it is fact. For example, there is the controversial business about whether or not Davis’ character had consensual sex with a man – the film seems to not only play that down, but deny it…when apparently William Hayes did not ‘shake his head no’ when such pleasure was offered to him.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a bad film – it does serve some cross-cultural purpose, I’m sure, and it’s good to be aware of some of the extremes that rear their head in various parts of the world.

    But it’s a troublesome film for a number of reasons, some of which are brought out in the assessment.

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