Midnight Express (1978)
Midnight Express (1978)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 1 min.

Release Date: October 6th, 1978 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Alan Parker Actors: Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul Smith, Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Norbert Weisser, Mike Kellin




ervous?” “No.” In October of 1970, in Istanbul, Turkey, tourist William “Billy” Hayes (Brad Davis) prepares to board a flight back to America. But he’s sweating conspicuously and behaving with noted agitation – due to the two kilos of hashish bricks taped to his torso, concealed beneath a shirt and jacket. And although he makes it past a security checkpoint at the airport, there’s another inspection arranged right before boarding, which uncovers the illegal drugs. This outcome is all but inevitable, considering the thunderous sound effects of a rapidly beating heart booming over the top of conversations and background noises.

Although fellow American Tex (Bo Hopkins) arrives to aid in the legal situation (he also serves as a translator during his scenes for important dialogue, as the Turkish exchanges are mostly left unexplained – including during the eventual trial, involving heated discourse that is played down as inconsequential), Billy is entirely out of his element. His willingness to cooperate with the authorities isn’t of particular help, considering that his inherent distrust of the foreign land and its policies leads him to flee at the first opportunity, which occurs when he suggests that he can identify the cab driver who originally sold him the contraband. On top of drug smuggling, his situation grows more complicated with the momentary elusion from the police, quickly landing him in a Turkish prison for a multi-year bid.

“You broke the law, man.” Interestingly, Billy is guilty; that’s not a matter of opinion. Nevertheless, his brutal treatment at the hands of sadistic guards is intended to inspire sympathy; his crimes, in the context of American standards, don’t warrant the excessive, inhumane punishments (though it must be said that countless people are still serving life sentences in American prisons for negligible quantities of minor drugs). Thanks to the political climate, however, a normal course of judicial relief isn’t likely, leading to the pursuit of the titular phrase, meaning an avenue of escape.

As a somewhat educational, historical piece, “Midnight Express” chronicles the inner workings of a Turkish lockup, demonstrating some similarities and many differences to the American system. Money buys better conditions and access to supplies; connected prisoners can obtain various unlikely items for the right price; and bribery and corruption and cruelty are prevalent. Like other prison-based films, there’s a focus on camaraderie (namely with other English-speaking convicts, including supporting roles by Randy Quaid and John Hurt), villainous overseers, and a master plan for a jailbreak – complete with nail-biting tension. But it doesn’t go about the process with notable uniqueness; in many ways, it’s reminiscent of heist movies, yet edited almost as if a made-for-television production, with untimely fades that appear as if cutting away from extended sequences that were trimmed for content.

Additionally, many of the happenings are mostly anticipated, with minimal surprises, as if something of an incarceration procedural. Still, moments are reserved for cathartic release; when the antagonists are portrayed to such heightened degrees of vileness (Paolo Bonacelli as an informant and Paul Smith as an oversized abuser are quite effective), their comeuppances are horrifyingly enthralling. Yet most startling of all is the picture’s basis on a true story (adapted from Hayes’ own book, with a screenplay by Oliver Stone); its strict adherence to facts isn’t necessarily as potent as the cinematic cautionary tale that it generates (a number of interactions are undoubtedly embellished for the sake of theatrics), though the depicted events will surely inspire further research into Hayes’ genuine plight.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10