Written by guest blogger Brent Allard from Criminal Movies
Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is strapping hash to his body as we open this film. From there he heads to the airport and it’s clear that he’s no professional. He’s sweating and nervous, looking like at any moment he could jump out of his skin. His discomfort only grows and this is terrifically accentuated by the sound of a racing heartbeat played in the background. The heartbeat slows down and speeds up depending on his anxiety when he’s first checked out by airport authorities. He doesn’t understand a word they’re saying when they ask him about a Frisbee (we don’t know either as there are no subtitles provided, a technique used to great effect throughout the film) When they let him get on the bus to the airplane, he is obviously pleased with himself, thinking he has outsmarted the system.
He even brags to his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle) that he doesn’t take anything seriously. This changes when he realizes that the real security is between the bus and the plane. They quickly discover his drugs and his experience in custody begins.
He’s escorted to the security room, where again, no one speaks English. They’re very excited that they’ve caught an American, even bringing in a photographer to snap pictures of them with their captive. They let him hold his drugs for the sake of a good picture. Not realizing the trouble he’s in, Billy even smiles for the photograph. Billy is questioned and told there will be no trouble if he cooperates. He’s allowed to leave escorted by Tex (Bo Hopkins) a well dressed English speaker who was also present during questioning. Billy tries to escape but is pursued and soon caught by Tex who holds a gun to the back of his head.
Before bringing him to the main prison, the guards beat him severely with a heavy stick leaving him unconscious for days. When he wakes, he meets fellow English speaking inmates Jimmy (Dennis Quaid,) Erich (Norbert Weisser) and Max (John Hurt,) who fill him in on the details of life in a Turkish prison. They all tell him that his best bet is to get out of there, either through appeals or as Max tells him “The Midnight Express” which is another way of saying escape. Conditions in the prison are absurd even for prison standards. Rapes and beatings (often by the warden) are arbitrary, and shankings are acceptable as long as they’re below the waist. Billy faces it stoically at first just hoping to be released soon.
His father soon flies out to see him and work on getting him out, ostensibly trying to get him released on bail so he can cross the border into Greece and leave Turkey behind. Court however doesn’t go as planned. Billy again can’t understand a word that’s said, which again shows Billy’s experience perfectly because we can’t either. His defense is completely inept, corrupt or both, happy that Billy receives a four year sentence (for possession) as the prosecutor passionately called for a life sentence (for smuggling) Billy’s dad breaks down, overwhelmed by his powerlessness. And then Billy is back to prison. He still copes fairly well, spending time with Max, Jimmy and Erik, biding time and hoping his defense comes through.
After awhile Billy’s defense visits again to tell him there’s been progress in the case but it will require paying off certain officials. Billy rolls his eyes, sensing that this is just an additional hurdle leading nowhere. Jimmy, Max and Billy start planning an escape. Jimmy comes up with a plan that seems too risky to the other two and decides to try it alone. He gets caught and is beaten so savagely that he loses a testicle due to hernia. “In comparison,” he writes to Susan “my troubles don’t seem so bad.” With Jimmy gone for a bit, Billy and Erik develop a close bond even turning to each other for physical affection and more time passes. Max is still around as well, but his drug problem keeps him occupied.
With 53 days left on his sentence, Billy gets notice that he’ll have to go through the process again. The prosecutor objected to the possession charge and moved to have it changed to smuggling (which carries a life sentence) Billy gets a chance to speak in court, and uses the time to give a speech about the nature of crime and punishment, the quality of mercy defining a country, fair play, etc. I’m certain he doesn’t gain any points with the court when his speech devolves into calling the Turkish people pigs, and proclaiming that he hates them all. This was the weakest part of the film in my opinion, as while I can understand some anger, and even an outburst or two, the sermonizing didn’t seem believable for Billy’s character, as much as a chance for Oliver Stone (who wrote the screenplay) to get some points across. Still it was only one moment and viewed against the rest of the film, it isn’t enough to damage it badly.
Billy gets sentenced to thirty years, which is better than life, but it’s doubtful that Billy appreciates the difference. Resigned to the idea that he’ll never get out, he turns to thoughts of escape immediately, Jimmy and Max both help, Max standing lookout as Billy and Jimmy chisel stones free from a wall in their cell to expose a hidden shaft to underground catacombs leading out of the prison. Happy that the shaft exists, although it’s too late in the day to attempt escape, they resolve to try the next day.
The three of them descend into the water filled tunnels only to encounter a dead end. They return to their cell and replace the stones and repeat the routine every day hoping to discover a way out. Although they replace the stones, Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli,) the despised Turkish supplier of drugs, tea, and anything else, discovers the tampering and reports it. Not knowing who to blame the warden decides to punish Jimmy (possibly because he tried to escape before.) Determined to punish Rifki, Max and Billy decide to steal his money, which is the reason for his existence. After realizing his money is gone, Rifki has the guards turn the prison upside down in search.
They learn that the latest beating has ruptured Jimmy’s hernia, and Rifki, knowing who took his money, blames Max for selling him the hash the guards “discover” on him. Seeing Max get dragged off for a beating (he’s too old and damaged to endure it) unhinges Billy into releasing all of his anger on Rifki, beating him within an inch of his life. Billy doesn’t even pause when Rifki cuts him on the arm, completely lost in his lashing out. Davis is brilliant in this scene, completely becoming the character lost in his rage. Of course, we see him next being dragged off by the guards.
Max and Billy both end up in the prison sanitarium which is far more miserable than the main prison was. The lighting is darker and the conditions dirtier, while the guards are still free to give out random beatings as they like. Billy takes on a blank stare, totally despondent, his spirit completely crushed. Everyone in the sanitarium wanders listlessly in a fog as if their spirits were removed and it doesn’t matter where they end up. The noise is also unbearable there, chaotic voices clash with each other drowning out any sense. The sanitarium resembles a hell from a medieval painting, minus the flames a perfect representation of despair as a place.
It’s at this point that Susan returns for a visit. She tries to tell Billy that people care and efforts are still being made to get him released. Billy can barely speak, muttering half phrases, obsessed with seeing Susan’s breasts. She obliges, although watching Billy masturbate to the sight of her breasts like a monkey in the zoo, brings her to tears as she realizes how broken he is. She gives Billy a photo album telling him about a teacher in Greece, who wanted him to have something on a certain page, which is clearly code that seems lost on Billy. She pleads with him to get himself together and not count on anyone else or he’ll die there.
Encouraged by the visit, Billy regains vitality, walking contrary to the circle the other inmates walk in continually. He discovers the money in the album and decides to leave. In a moving moment he says goodbye to Max, who is only an empty shell by now. He talks to a guard who lets him in to see the warden. We’re not really sure what his plan is as Billy is now speaking their language fluently (without subtitles of course.) Billy attempts to bribe the warden to bring him somewhere. He decides instead to bring him to a locked room, presumably to beat and rape him. Seeing him unbuckle his pants Billy charges the warden, accidentally knocking him into a peg sticking out of the wall, killing him. Billy takes his gun and uniform and has no trouble obtaining the keys and walks right out of the prison complex. The ending text fills in the fact that he escaped to Greece and flew home from there.
It should be mentioned that this film was based on the autobiographical account of William Hayes, but for the purpose of the character, it doesn’t matter how true or untrue the story is, as the movie is a world of its own. This is a case of a man trying to extricate himself from an impossible situation, and only barely succeeding through luck.
The Midnight Express, whatever its intention, does not convey a message of morality or mercy, as much as it says be aware of the penalties of what you’re doing as the system can easily destroy you. Stupid kid or not, you will face heavy penalties if caught smuggling drugs between countries.
As a cautionary tale this film is flawless. Director Alan Parker did a wonderful job, using enhancing effects such as the heartbeat at the beginning and the noise in the sanitarium as well as abstaining from subtitles to put us as much as possible in Billy’s shoes. Oliver Stone, won an Oscar for the script, which despite its flaws, told a gripping story . The cast is solid all the way through and Davis really makes the part his own right up until the last moment, walking like a beaten prisoner even outside the walls.
Soundtrack available here.