For years friends and colleagues who know of my interest in films have been asking what I think of Midnight Express. I’ve always had to apologise and say that I’ve never seen it. This happened most recently last week and when I got home I finally remembered to add it as a high priority to my LoveFilm account with the company duly dispatching it just a couple of days later. Now when someone asks me what I think of Midnight Express I will be able to take them, though it might take some time. There is no doubting that it’s a very good film but it wasn’t quite the film I was expecting and there are one or two quite major problems with it.
The movie is based on a book by Billy Hayes, played here by Brad Davis. While in Istanbul with his girlfriend, Davis attempts to smuggle 2kg of hashish back to the US but is caught at the airport amid tighter security following a series of Palestinian lead hijackings. Billy is arrested and sent to a Turkish jail where he will spend the next several years.
It takes a little while for the film to get to the prison scenes and before it did I enjoyed the scenes in both the airport and the Istanbul streets. Initially it is obvious how nervous Billy is as beads of sweat drip from his tense looking face. There is a moment of brief exaltation followed by blind panic when he is caught in possession of the drugs. Billy doesn’t go straight to jail though and there are a couple of scenes set in the bustling Istanbul streets which had a lot of period charm to them. Billy’s first night in prison is rough and I thought “OK, here we go, buckle up”, but then it took some time for things to get rough again. For a long time I was wondering what all the fuss was about. He was incarcerated which is by no means pleasant but generally his life wasn’t all that bad. It took until about fifty minutes in before things started to take a turn for the worse for our central character.
There is a fantastic and moving scene around half way through the two hour run time in which Billy makes an impassioned speech to the Court. This follows some terrible news and it’s one of the highlights of the entire movie. It was around this point when things started to get a little darker for both Billy and the film and the violence and despair were ratcheted up a few notches. Billy shares his anguish and his life with several other non Turkish prisoners who are played by John Hurt, Randy Quaid and Norbert Weisser. Much of the pain and distress is dished out towards them with Billy as a powerless onlooker and the film creates a great deal of sympathy for the imprisoned characters. A further highlight is a scene in which Billy finally flips and has a violent breakdown which sends him to the part of the prison set aside for the criminally insane. Here the film takes an even darker turn than the one at the half way mark.
The film is very successful in creating a sense of isolation, panic and fear for Billy and the other prisoners. This is first exemplified in an early scene following Billy’s initial arrest. The scene has him questioned and strip searched by Turkish Police and is presented without subtitles (as indeed the whole film is). The audience’s lack of understanding mirrors Billy’s and this confusion and terror helps us to empathise with the character. The fish out of water feel of the film is continued right the way through although over the years Billy is able to grasp a little of the language and learn about his environment to assist in his survival. A prison movie isn’t a prison movie without two things; homosexuality and an escape attempt. Midnight Express contains both although one is brushed aside more than I had expected. There is one scene in which Billy becomes close to a Swedish inmate and it feels a little out of place. There is very little mention of homosexuality, sex or rape in the film but this sequence almost feels as though it is shoe-horned in and then forgotten. Billy also makes the point of politely declining to take things further after a little homoeroticism, something which distorts the truth of the real man who openly admits to being involved in homosexual acts. As for the escape attempt, this is much better handled. There are some good planning scenes and a lot of apprehension and elation before the characters come back down to Earth with a thud.
The direction is very assured and gets right inside the prison and close to the drama. Intimate camera angles and tight spaces enhance the effect of the claustrophobic setting and a steady, untroubled lens capture the proceedings calmly, allowing the actors and script to do the running around. Much like the film itself, I thought it took Brad Davis a while to get going but once he did he was terrific. He goes through several stages with the same character and is excellent in each. He conveys the terror, elation, fear and disappointment at the correct times and never lets the film down. John Hurt was Oscar nominated for his role, a nomination which is truly deserved. He is simply fantastic as the eccentric and institutionalised but wise Englishman and has some tremendous scene stealing moments. The Turks are played mainly by Italian actors and all come across as nasty, obnoxious, pigs and this is where the film faltered for me.
I had a serious problem with the portrayal of the Turkish characters. Without exception they were all sweaty, disgusting, stupid, ignorant beasts and I found the film more than a little bit xenophobic. I understand that they are on screen as the bag guys but I think the film went a little too far and there wasn’t even one redeeming feature about any of the Turkish characters. The film’s controversy regarding their depiction subsequently caused the film’s Oscar winning writer Oliver Stone to apologise publically and the real Billy Hayes has himself made it clear that he was disappointed in their depiction. I personally think it puts a big black mark up against an otherwise excellent film and the portrayal has infiltrated the minds of the Western world in which Turks are often treated with more suspicion than those of neighbouring nations. Thesis’ could and have been written about the film’s xenophobic legacy.
For me one of the highlights was the film’s score. It is a synth heavy, giallo inspired piece which reminded me a lot of Vangelis. It was in fact composed by Italian Giorgio Moroder whose synth styled electro music predates that of the Greek Vangelis. It’s a great soundtrack which strangely works against the medieval looking Turkish prison. Somehow the music fits perfectly and Moroder won an Oscar for his efforts. Overall I thought that Midnight Express was a dramatic and heavy film that was extremely well made but had some fundamental flaws. The xenophobia is inexcusable and the story’s anti establishment message makes a hero out of a criminal but in the end it’s tale of injustice trounces the problems and it comes thorough as a highly memorable film which carries a lot of weight.8/10
- The movie was shot in Malta after the Turks (understandably) denied permission to shoot in Istanbul. They then persuaded both Israel and Italy to also refuse permission for filming.
- There are many differences between the real events and film and include that Billy was actually alone in Turkey, was never subject to sexual attacks and spent only a few days in the psychiatric hospital. He also never bit anyone's tongue out.
- The studio wanted Richard Gere to star but Gere refused to audition.
- John Hurt did not bath or shower for the entire shoot in order to get into character.
- The score was the first to win an Oscar for totally synthesised music.