The hard-hitting 1978 prison drama Midnight Express shares dubious qualities with another acclaimed film of the same year, Michael Cimino’s Vietnam saga The Deer Hunter. Both pictures feature unflinching depictions of inhumane treatment during incarceration, and both pictures are bullshit. In the case of Cimino’s movie, the famous Russian roulette scene used to depict the savagery of the Viet Cong had no basis in reality. Similarly, the most brutal sequences in Midnight Express are fabrications, even though Midnight Express was directly adapted from a book by Billy Hayes, the unfortunate young man whose odyssey in a Turkish prison is depicted in the movie.
So, while Midnight Express is unquestionably arresting (and sometimes riveting), the movie has a distasteful undercurrent. It’s as if the film’s producers, together with screenwriter Oliver Stone and director Alan Parker, felt Hayes’ real-life travails weren’t sufficiently harrowing, which is nonsense. Therefore, it’s impossible not to wonder at the filmmakers’ agenda—was the point of goosing the content simply to make Midnight Express more exciting, or was something else involved, since nearly every Turk portrayed in the movie is a sadistic monster?
Anyway, the story begins when Billy (Brad Davis), a cocky young American, straps two kilos of hash to his body before departing for the Istanbul airport. He’s caught with the drugs and thrown into a prison straight out of the Middle Ages, where physical abuse and rape are rampant. While ineffectual forces including Billy’s family and the U.S. consulate try to arrange Billy’s release, Billy makes friends in jail. His pals include hotheaded American Jimmy (Randy Quaid), who’s forever formulating escape plans; drug-addled Englishman Max (John Hurt), who knows secrets about the prison’s layout; and Erich (Norbert Weisser), a European with whom Billy forms a quasi-romantic bond. Meanwhile, Billy suffers the torments of grotesque jailers including sleazy trustee Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli) and vile head guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith).
Midnight Express is torture porn made before that term was coined, because the film’s “entertainment value” comes from watching how much abuse Billy can endure. There’s an old-fashioned escape flick built into the picture’s DNA, of course, since the real Billy did indeed flee Turkish incarceration, but Parker and Stone seem more preoccupied with cataloguing horrors than in truly developing Billy’s characterization. Make no mistake, Midnight Express is an expertly rendered movie, with Stone’s script racing forward at a relentless speed while Parker creates grimly beautiful tableaux and composer Giorgio Moroder adds otherworldly textures through his Oscar-winning electronic score. The acting is also quite good, with Davis using every bit of his limited skillset while slicker actors including Hurt and Quaid offer subtler work for balance.
But particularly when the movie slips into hard-to-watch scenes that spring from the filmmakers’ imagination, like a vicious moment in which Billy rips the tongue from another man’s mouth, it’s hard to discern authorial intention. Is this a thriller or a horror movie? And if it’s a cautionary tale drawn from life, why so much fakery? No matter its peculiar contours, however, Midnight Express is highly memorable, as seen by one of its oddest echoes in the pop-culture universe—the scene in Airplane! (1980) during which a creepy pilot asks a young boy, “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”
Midnight Express: GROOVY