Review: Midnight Express (1978)

Midnight Express


Alan Parker
Oliver Stone (Book: William Hayes, William Hoffer)
121 min.
Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul Smith, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser, John Hurt, Mike Kellin, Franco Diogene, Michael Ensign, Gigi Ballista
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

If you were in a foreign country, with a few bucks to spend, would you choose to purchase pounds of illegal drugs and attempt to smuggle them back to the U.S.? Most people would buy souvenirs, but Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) had apparently not heard about Turkish prisons when he decided to buy a large stash of hashish and tape it to his torso in an effort to sneak it out of the country. However, his inexperience and fear lead to his capture and his resultant poor decisions cause him to be incarcerated in one of the most notoriously horrendous prisons in the world.

In the 1970s, the illegal drug trade was a serious issue for the government of Turkey and in an effort to crack down on the desire to smuggle from their nation, they cracked down on traffickers and made examples of them. Billy was in the wrong country at the wrong time and doing the wrong thing. For his youthful ignorance, he was punished. Inside the prison, things like blankets and cigarettes were bartered and sold. You didn’t just get perks and when you broke the rules, as unfamiliar with them as you might be, you were punished, usually through the caning of bare feet. We are shown this procedure on a number of occasions. Midnight Express, a term for escaping the prison, is not a film for the squeamish. Although we never see the broken flesh, the threat and pain of the torture is accentuated. In trying to tell a true story, director Alan Parker is also telling a cautionary tale, attempting to scare young audiences into doing the right thing and not getting themselves into an inescapable position.

While in the prison, Billy meets an interesting array of characters. Randy Quaid plays Jimmy Booth, an excitable man constantly looking for a way out. Norbert Weisser plays Billy’s Nordic pal Erich who attempts to temper Billy’s anger and frustration. And Oscar-nominated John Hurt is the well-connected Max, a bespectacled, flamboyant inmate of seven years. He’s the longest serving person in the prison and knows the ins and outs, but is so frequently drugged out that finding out information is extremely difficult. The four of them provide support in an atmosphere of danger, crime and fear. The inmates are more afraid of the guards than they are of each other.

Billy isn’t focused on escape because he believes his lawyers will be able to get him out, but when that opportunity passes and his sentence is lengthened, his frustration begins boiling over and he begins looking for every chance to escape he can, even though he comes across only two.

This was Brad Davis’ first big screen outing and he does such a tremendous job with the role that it’s surprising that his career on the big screen never launched beyond Chariots of Fire three years later; for the most part, he remained a television hit for a few years before disappearing into obscurity before his untimely death in 1991. His performance conveys the hope, desperation, sorrow, insanity and calculation of Billy Hayes so effectively that you almost forget you’re watching an actor. Quaid has his moments, but Hurt is the true standout in support. His drug-addled role highlights his talent quite effectively.

The story is well written and plotted, never feeling tedious or lethargic. Nothing is taken for granted. We never have information forced down our throats. If it has one flaw, it’s the overbearing soliloquy Billy recites before the judiciary as he’s handed down his life sentence. The length is the issue, not the tone or passion used to deliver the speech. It just feels excessive, but it’s such a brief moment that it doesn’t distract much from the film surrounding it.

Director Alan Parker had only fielded one theatrical motion picture prior, but Midnight Express put him on the map. His Oscar nomination was richly deserved and he would later go on to direct two of my favorite films: Pink Floyd’s narrative feature The Wall and the big screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita. But even though I enjoy both of those films, this represents the best work behind the camera I’ve seen of his so far.
Review Written
November 22, 2010

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