Wednesday, November 26, 2008


British director Alan Parker depicts the traumatic ordeal of an American citizen seized for drugs in a Middle Eastern country whose laws make an example of him for the ills visited on them by U.S. Foreign policy in “The Midnight Express,” (**** out of ****) one of the most powerful and important films of 1978, starring Brad Davis and John Hurt. According to the film’s closing credits, on May 18, 1978, “Midnight Express” was shown to an audience of world press at the Cannes Film Festival . . . 43 days later, the United States and Turkey entered into formal negotiations for the exchange of prisoners. Initially, the Turkish government tried to prevent the film from being produced. Indeed, even after the “Midnight Express” came out, the Turkish government banned the film from being shown in theatres.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical account by Billy Hayes, a tourist arrested in 1970 for trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey, the film traces Billy’s descent into the hellish oblivion of Turkey’s penal system and his miraculous escape. Not surprisingly, “Midnight Express” stretched the truth and even Billy Hayes has admitted that the filmmakers took advantage of dramatic license to heighten the dramatic impact of the material. As directed by Alan Parker and scripted by Oliver Stone, “Midnight Express” indicts Turkish law for its cruel, inhuman treatment of prisoners and celebrates Hayes’ courage and will to survive. Billy expresses the film’s theme: “the quality of mercy is measured in a society by its sense of justice.

Briefly, American tourist Billy (Brad Davis of “Querelle”) tries to smuggle $200 worth of hashish out of Turkey. The authorities catch him, however, during a routine search before he boards a commercial airliner, arrest him, and sentence him to prison. This sequence is pretty harrowing stuff. Six months later, Billy stands trial and receives a three-year sentence. The prison that they stick him in is a version of Hell on earth. With only 53 days left of his sentence, Billy learns to his horror that the authorities have scheduled a new trial for him. The sentence this time is life imprisonment commuted to 30 years. During his incarceration, Hayes befriends an Englishman, Max (John Hurt of “Heaven’s Gate”), and a fellow American, psychotic Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid of “The Last Detail”), and contends with one of the cinema’s most sadistic villains, Hamidou (Paul L. Smith of “Red Sonja”), who loves to wield a paddle and beat the daylights out of unruly convicts. Undoubtedly, “Midnight Express” ranks Smith’s most memorable role. You’ll never forget the scene when the barrel-chested Hamidou marches out with a chubby little child clutching each hand to inflict torture on an unfortunate inmate. He snaps his head one way to remove the sweat from his brow and starts swinging with a vengeance. Imagine Bud Spencer of “Trinity” fame in a foul mood and you will get the picture.

Parker and Stone have reconstructed the events of Hayes’ book so they follow a logical progression. Otherwise, apart from two scenes, the film generally keeps the book intact. Those scenes include the movie’s ending, which differs drastically from the book’s ending. And there is a brutal fight scene in which a prison informer is killed and his tongue bitten out. Another slight difference is that the book had no central villain, but the film provides the sadistic guard Hamidou who beats prisoners on the feet with a two-by-four. Credit director Parker with vigorous, imaginative direction. There is not one bad minute in this exciting film. To enhance the realism of the action, Parker has shot it in semi-documentary style with occasional narration. The editing also deserves mention; much of the film had to be lensed outside of Turkey, and the filmmakers have smoothly integrated shots of Turkey with location shots made on the island of Malta.

One of the best surprises in “Midnight Express” is Giorgio Moroder’s electrifying music. He captures effectively the atmosphere of the film and the hostile Turkish setting. His use of pulsating music during an early chase when Billy tries to elude his captors exemplifies his great talent. “The Midnight Express” is not a film for the squeamish; the language is harsh and the content is frank with some homosexuality. One of the most depressing scenes occurs when Billy’s girlfriend visits him in prison. A thick glass wall separates them. Billy begs her to press her breasts again the glass and he masturbates with one hand on the glass where her breast is flattened out and the other . . . while she cries in despair and humiliation. The finale when Billy tangles with the evil Hamidou will have you on the edge of your seat. Oliver Stone of "Scarface" and "Platoon" fame won an Oscar for this superb script. If it has a fault, it may be that it is too reactionary and paints a biased view of Turkey. However, one that “The Midnight Express” makes painfully clear: when you’re busted over there, you are in for the hassle of your life.

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