Since it’s currently Spring Break, I figured that I would spend the next two weeks reviewing films about people on vacation. Some of the films will be about good vacations. Some of the films will be about bad vacations. But, in the end, they’ll all be about celebrating those moments that make us yearn for the chance to get away from it all.
Take Midnight Express, for instance. This 1978 film (which was nominated for six Oscars and won two) tells the story of what happens when a carefree college student named Billy Hayes decides to spend his holiday in Turkey.
When the film begins, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), is at an airport in Turkey. He’s preparing to return home to the United States. His girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), informs him that Janis Joplin has just died. When Billy responds by making a joke, Susan accuses him of not taking anything seriously. What Susan doesn’t realize is that Billy actually has a lot on his mind. For one thing, he’s got several bricks of hashish taped around his waist. He purchased it from a cab driver and he’s planning on selling it to his friends back in the United States. Unfortunately, Billy’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Because of recent terrorist bombings, the Turkish police are searching everyone before they board their plane. Billy finds himself standing out in the middle of the runway with his hands up in the air, surrounded by gun-wielding Turkish policemen.
Billy finds himself stranded in a country that he doesn’t understand, being interrogated by men whose language he cannot speak. An enigmatic American (Bo Hopkins) shows up and assures Billy that he’ll be safe, as long as he identifies the taxi driver who sold him to the drugs. Billy does so but then makes the mistake of trying to flee from the police. In the end, it’s the American who captures him and, holding a gun to Billy’s head, tells him not to make another move.
Soon, Billy is an inmate at Sağmalcılar Prison. He’s beaten when he first arrives and it’s only days later that he’s able to walk and think clearly. He befriends some of the other prisoners, including a heroin addict named Max (John Hurt) and an idiot named Jimmy (Randy Quaid). Billy watches as the prisoners are tortured by the fearsome head guard (Paul L. Smith) and listens to the screams of inmates being raped behind closed doors. After being told that his original four-year sentence has been lengthened to a 30-year sentence, Billy starts to degenerate. When Susan visits, Billy end up pathetically masturbating in front of her. When another prisoner taunts Billy, Billy bites out the man’s tongue, an act that we see in both close up and slow motion. If Billy has any hope of regaining his humanity, he has to escape. He has to catch what Jimmy calls the “midnight express…..”
Midnight Express is a brutal and rather crude film. Though it may have been directed by a mainstream director (Alan Parker) and written by a future Oscar-winner (Oliver Stone), Midnight Express is a pure grindhouse film at heart. There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film. The camera lingers over every act of sadism while Giorgio Moroder’s synth-based score pulsates in the background. When Billy grows more and more feral and brutal in his behavior, it’s hard not to be reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. turning into The Wolf Man. The film may be incredibly heavy-handed but it’s nightmarishly effective, playing out with the intensity of a fever dream.
As for the cast, Brad Davis wasn’t particularly likable or sympathetic as Billy. On the one hand, he’s a victim of an unjust system, betrayed by his own country and tortured by another. On the other hand, Billy was an idiot who apparently thought no one would notice all that hash wrapped around his chest. That said, Davis’s unlikable screen presence actually worked to the film’s advantage. If you actually liked Billy, the film would be unbearable to watch. Before Davis was cast, Dennis Quaid and Mark Hamill were both considered for the role. If either of those actors has been cast, Midnight Express would be too intense and disturbing to watch. For instance, it would be depressing to watch Dennis Quaid rip a man’s tongue out of his mouth. You would be like, “No, Mr. Quaid, you’ll never recover your humanity!” But when Brad Davis does it, you’re just like, “Eh. It was bound to happen sometime.”
For more effective are John Hurt and Bo Hopkins. Hurt and Hopkins both have small roles but they both make a big impression, if just because they’re the only two characters in the film who aren’t either yelling or crying all of the time. While everyone else is constantly cursing their imprisonment, Hurt is quietly sardonic. As for Hopkins, we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s with the CIA and he sold out Billy. But honestly, no one made Billy tape all that hash to his chest. Finally, you’ve got Randy Quaid and Paul L. Smith, who both glower their way through the film. Smith is wonderfully evil while Randy Quaid is …. well, he’s Randy Quaid, the loudest American in Turkey.
Midnight Express was such a success at the box office that it caused an international incident. There’s not a single positive Turkish character to be found in the entire film and it’s impossible not to feel that the film is not only condemning Turkey’s drug policies but that it’s also condemning the entire country as well. The Turkish prisoners are portrayed as being just as bad as the guards and even Billy’s defense attorney comes across as being greedy and untrustworthy. Watching the film today can be an awkward experience. It’s undeniably effective but it’s impossible not to cringe at the way anyone who isn’t from the west is portrayed. In recent years, everyone from director Alan Parker to screenwriter Oliver Stone to the real-life Billy Hayes has apologized for the way that the Turkish people were portrayed in the film.
Despite the controversy, Midnight Express was a huge box office success and it was nominated for best picture. It lost to another controversial film about people imprisoned in Asia, The Deer Hunter.