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Midnight Express

From Academic Kids

Midnight Express is a 1978 biographical film, based on the story of Billy Hayes, a young American sent to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey to the US. It stars Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul L. Smith, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser and John Hurt.

The screenplay was adapted by Oliver Stone from the book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer. Alan Parker directed.

Billy Hayes has acknowledged the inaccuracy of many of the scenes in the movie; he was in a low-security prison, and no guard was killed in order for him to escape. More over he also said that he was never raped in prison. (These are explained in detail below)



Story Synopsis (Movie Version)

During a stay in Istanbul, Billy Hayes, an American citizen is arrested by the Turkish police, as he is about to leave the country by plane with his girlfriend, carrying with him several packets of hashish. He's sentenced to an "exemplary" four years' imprisonment. In the remand centre, he meets up with other western prisoners he makes friend with, and quickly prepares an escape plan, which fails. While his release is getting closer, Billy's sentence turns into a detention for life. His stay in this Istanbul prison makes his life hell: terrifying and unbearable scenes of rape and physical and mental torture follow one another in a ramshackle remand centre, where bribery, violence and insanity rule. Monstrous warders, acting with an unbearable cruelty, have the prisoners undergo the worst brutalities. Some of them are working for the prison administration as "informers". In a fit of madness, Billy Hayes kills one of them, who denounces the escape plan prepared by Billy Hayes and his friends. Billy finally tries to escape by "bribing" the warder in chief. After accidentally killing the warder, as the latter wanted to rape him, Billy puts on his uniform, and manages to escape.



Differences Between the Book and the Movie

While reading the book, we realize very quickly that there are important differences between the cinematographic and the literary versions of Midnight-Express. In fact, very questionable liberties have been taken with the real events as related by Billy Hayes. We all know that the scenario rhythm of such a movie must be steady, without any slack periods, in order to arouse the utmost attention next to a public, the largest possible. However, as the image of a whole nation and a country is here in question, beyond Billy Hayes' personal story, it would have been decent, intellectually speaking, to respect more scrupulously the original story. Moreover, we'll see that these liberties are in keeping with a deliberate process to accentuate and to emphasize the movie's dramatic nature.

Here are some of the most obvious liberties taken with regard to the book:

The hero's only fault appearing in the movie is a very occasional use of hashish. On the other hand, according to the book, Billy Hayes admits that he has been a great drug consumer (his addiction became more severe during his imprisonment) and even that he has illegally carried hashish through Europe on several occasions (Billy Hayes, Midnight-Express, Presse de la Cité, coll. Pocket, 1987, p. 11).

Another distortion of the truth in the movie, of fatal importance: the scenes of rape. In fact, according to the book, Billy Hayes has never been raped by the Turkish warders. He has never suffered any sexual violence. On the other hand, he has a homosexual relation, entirely consented, with one of the western prisoners, a love relationship which is carefully hidden in the movie, because it could have "besmirched" the image of the "perfect" American (in fact, in the movie, he refused his friend prisoner's advances and remains true, against the whole world, to his fiancée, Susan).

In the movie Billy Hayes is in Turkey with his girlfriend, whereas he's alone in the original story. Nevertheless, in the scenario, this love story between the hero and his fiancé represents a main dramatic driving force.

In the movie, the hero's image comes close to the "perfect" American's. In fact, he's presented as a good person in all respects, who loves and respects his parents and who is dogged by misfortune and the Turks.

The following liberty taken with the original story is fraught with sense: the serious insults said by Billy against the Turkish nation, when, in the movie, he learns that he is given a life sentence, just don't exist in the book !! In the movie the violence of insults aiming at the Turks reaches its paroxysm when B. Hayes, who learns his life sentence, pronounces words which profoundly shocked many a Turk: (addressing the Turkish judges) "For a nation of pigs, it is funny that none of you consumes it. Jesus Christ forgave his executioners, for me, it is out of question. I hate the Turks, I hate your nation, I hate your people, and I fuck your sons and your daughters, because they are pigs. You are pigs. All pigs!".

In the cinematographic and literary versions of Midnight-Express, there are two different story ends. While in the narrative, the hero is moved to another prison from which he escaped by sea, during a storm, in the movie, this passage has been completely changed and replaced by a scene with, again, extreme violence. In fact, Billy Hayes, still in his prison in Istanbul (he's not moved) is "forced" to murder the warder in chief, who wants to rape him, before escaping thanks to the warder's uniform.

Of course, all these liberties work towards giving the movie a tragic and dramatic dimension, out of proportion to what Billy Hayes relates in his book (in which the events are dramatic enough, there is no need to add anything). Whether it's intentional or not, these liberties contribute as well to giving a very negative image of the Turks in the movie.



The Anti-Turk Rhetoric

After carefully watching the film, one notices, throughout the whole story, that the characters and the situations are composed in a pure Manichean way.

The characters

- Billy Hayes and his family: unity, love, courage and self-abnegation are the keywords characterizing the relationship between the hero and the members of his family. The disputes between Billy Hayes and his father mentioned in the book are totally ignored in the film, which conveys a stereotyped image of a "perfect American family".


- The Turks: Throughout the whole film, they figure as brutes, militarists, bloodthirsty, stupid and evil torturers and sadistic, in brief as true "bastards". Their image is a real caricature: ugly, with a moustache, badly shaven, suntanned, with eyes and hair very dark. They are stereotypical persons, who, even when they are killed in the film, they always have the lot they deserve!

All of them are systematically presented in a discrediting way. For example, the customs officers: in the film, they methodically search all the foreigners, while they let the Turks pass (as if the Turks could not be drug traffickers!). The same for the policemen: they are savages, who do not respect anything, and particularly the personal belongings of B. Hayes during the search in his luggage; they are stupid and rude (scene where B. Hayes takes out of his boots some bags of hashish forgotten during the search by the policemen). In all this collection of portraits, the warder in chief and the lawyer hold a central place. The first is ignoble and cruel (he closes his eyes on different traffics in the prison); he shows all the ignominy in the scene of the first interrogation, incredible in violence, in which he rapes B. Hayes. This last one is then tortured for having borrowed a blanket during his first night in prison. Images are particularly rough and hardly bearable. The second, the lawyer of B. Hayes, Yesil, is far from being reassuring and nice: he is fat, corrupt, a liar and very venal.

At this level, one can note an interesting fact for a story supposed to have taken place in Turkey. Indeed, most of the actors playing the parts of the Turks in the film speak the language very badly, with strong accents which make almost incomprehensible their speech for a person with a perfect master of Turkish. Except the attorney General, this observation is valid for all the Turks presented in the film. Besides, in the casting list at the end of the film, one can see that there is not a single Turk among the actors: some, in Turks' roles, are even Armenians and Greeks (the Armenians or the Greeks are known for not having sympathy towards the Turks).


Quotations, descriptions, and situations

- At the beginning of the film, B. Hayes still believes that he can get out of prison, but Max, a prisoner, very quickly removes his illusions about the rights of prisoners in the country: "In Turkey, there is no honest lawyer, they're all twisted, worse than sowbugs. In their profession, it is indispensable. Corruption is taught at the universities."

- The film presents besides a dreadful Turkish prison life: everything is only an affair of corruption; one can find anything in prison on the condition of being able to pay for it. Besides, there is a striking contrast between the severity of the keepers, changing with their humor and the languor that reigns in the daily life (the prisoners take the law into their own hands, for example).

- The dialogue between B. Hayes and his father, during his first visit in Turkey, is another eloquent example of anti-Turkish discourse:

Billy: "Well, how do you like Istanbul?" The father: "Interesting, well. But, between us, I find their food disgusting. The mess they serve in their cheap restaurants, yucky! I had to rush off to the bathroom, but you should have seen the bathroom! From now on, I shall not take any risks any more. I shall have lunch and dinner at Hilton: steak and chips and torrents of ketchup!"


- Further, in the film, Billy speaks himself of his situation and the universe in which he is: "Everything is here sula bula (which means so so). One never knows what is going to happen. For the Turks, all the foreigners are hated, under excuse that they are dirty and hated. Homosexuality also is dirty, it is a serious offence here, but it is in current use. There are a thousand things which one considers as hated. For example, one can stab below the belt, but not above, because it would mean an intent to kill. Then, people stroll by stabbing buttocks. One calls that "Turkish vengeance". All this must look crazy to you, but this place is really crazy."

- The violence of insults aiming at the Turks reaches its paroxysm when B. Hayes, who learns his life sentence, pronounces words which profoundly shocked many a Turk: (addressing the Turkish judges) "For a nation of pigs, it is funny that none of you consumes it. Jesus Christ forgave his executioners, for me, it is out of question. I hate the Turks, I hate your nation, I hate your people, and I fuck your sons and your daughters, because they are pigs. You are pigs. All pigs!".

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The Form

Least one can say, is that Alan Parker showed in this film that he had a strong sense of shock images, the fact that he has a great experience of advertisement films has certainly a lot to do with it. Midnight Express appears, indeed, as a succession of skillfully staged plans, which plunge the spectator into a terrifying atmosphere. From the very beginning, it starts with the arrest of B. Hayes and the first scene of torture. Violence and murders are shown in their crudeness. These shock images are in fact a palliative to the lack of depth of the persons and their character. As far as these last ones are stereotyped, it is the violence of the scenes and of the situations that supports the film. Description and first degree, constantly, take the precedence over reflection. Throughout the story, visual effects and manipulation reign, a series of situations and feelings are just exposed instead of investigating and analyzing them. Everything is made to arouse only strong feelings, without any perspective: disgust, dismay, pity and sympathy. And realization plays deeply on the emotional identification of the spectator to the hero. There just is no place for the critical mind, and nothing in the film invites the spectator to minimize the scenes that he sees or the comments he hears.

The lighting plays also a main role in the film. It increases particularly the sinister and lugubrious character, not only of jails, but also that of the city of Istanbul. Everything is dark and sad there.

As for the music, it intensifies the shock caused by images, but also the anxiety. It comes back, monotonous, as if a leitmotiv, to punctuate the most violent scenes of the film: the murder of Rifki, the warder, for example.

In general, everything, in the way of capturing the scenes, makes sense in this film. Nothing is left to chance, and the result is an execrable image of the Turks and Turkey, given to the spectator, bewildered by the power of visual effects. We have already spoken before about comments held by Billy and his father, and evoked the caricatural image of the Turks (they do not respect anything, they are fat, they sweat, they are "pigs").

Istanbul, for its part, is filmed so that the spectator is frightened. The city is indeed swarming of crowds, streets are constantly blocked, full of people or carts, buildings are ruined, dirty, electric cords hang out of everywhere, in brief, a real city of the Third World, which radiates an atmosphere of disorder and chaos. One perceives at the bend of an image heads of sheep being roasted, the linen suspended across the narrow and dark alleys, and traditional shoeshine boys. One can also see idle people discussing on the pavements or smoking the water pipe, that is, the caricature of the indolent and idle Orient. Far from the picturesque impression it could display in other circumstances, this collection of images is not innocent and it contributes, there again, to give to the spectator a feeling of fear and refusal of the "Turkish world".

The prison life too undergoes a particular treatment, which is understandable, because the Turkish prisons are not renowned to be four-star hotels: all the images are dark, and humidity oozes from the walls of the cells... The prison is dirty and falls in decrepitude, there is no comfort, not even the most elementary one. A dirty atmosphere is given off.

In brief, all the stage setting aims at over-dramatizing the story of B. Hayes, which damages the image of the Turks. The question is to check out whether the effort to darken and to slander the Turkish people is real, or if it is an indirect consequence of the shock realization of the film? Doesn’t the scriptwriter and the director reveal signs of extreme primary voyeurism and racism in their way of suggesting the oppression and the atrocity of conditions of detention? These questions are the subject of a debate between the detractors and defenders of Midnight Express, and especially between two categories of film critics, those who pretend to be specialized, and those that consider themselves more popular and close to the enthusiasm of the public for the films of Parker (See in this regard, COURSODON J. Pierre and TAVERNIER BERTRAND, 50 ans de cinéma américain (50 years of American Movie), Omnibus, 1995). As far as we're concerned, the answer to the above questions can only be positive. Nevertheless, the quality of the realization and the performance, the décor and photography, give a force of immense persuasion to this film, whose success remains understandable.

Besides its international success, Midnight Express had the effect of a terrible disappointment in Turkey, where it was shown on the television in the mid 90s. Still today, the Turks can hardly understand such an outburst of hatred against them. They consider this film as another element among all other negative representations that Occidentals make of them through generations. Representations, more or less forgotten, which stand out by the only statement of these words: "the Turks". The latter, in the course of the years, curled up on themselves, except for official condemnations, avoided reacting to or answering provocations or insults of all sorts that they were victims of. For some years nevertheless, one can notice a willingness of the Authorities, but also and especially of the Turks themselves, to improve the image the Occidentals have of them.



Oliver Stone has apologised to Turkey for this film last year (2004) when he visited Turkey. He admitted that he did not do any research about the so called "true story" of Billy Hayes before he wrote the script.

Although the film is set largely in Turkey, most of the location work was done in Malta, using local actors along with some Greeks and Armenians. A 19th-Century British barracks in Malta was used for the prison.

It won Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Score (Giorgio Moroder) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Stone), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hurt), Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture.

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