‘Midnight Express’ Revisited

Forgotten DVD

         
 

15 October 2012| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

Midnight Express (1978) has been perceived through the years as either a 70’s prison movie classic or as an overcooked melodrama of injustice. The film, directed by Alan Parker and penned by first-time screenwriter Oliver Stone, caused quite a stir at its 1978 Cannes Film Festival premiere and divided critics. The studio lacked faith in its box office potential due to its harsh themes, and almost demanded a commercialized ending (that was discarded), but audiences found it a sensation anyway. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, and won for Best Screenplay by Stone and Best Original Score by Giorgio Moroder.

Parker and Stone have confessed to taking major dramatic liberties in telling the story of Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, a startling newcomer at the time in a role meant first for Richard Gere), an American tourist condemned to a Turkish prison for attempting to smuggle dope out of the country. Billy Hayes and his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle) are on their way back to the States. Billy tapes drugs wrapping around his torso to smuggle it past authorities but is caught at the plane tarmac.

Billy has the opportunity to cooperate with authorities, but he blows it and finds himself thrown into the filthiest prison you’ve ever seen. On the first night Billy, while freezing in his stone-cold cell, attempts to steal a blanket and consequently is caught – he is bound upside down and beaten severely.

It gets worse from there, and Billy is sentenced to four years of incarceration replete with rampant homosexuality, frugal bartering, substance abuse and madness. Billy’s father (Mike Kellin) makes a long-trip visit: “I don’t want you to get stupid and pull anything. They can play with your sentence.” In strenuous survival conditions, Billy has to play good for the next four years or face an excessively protracted prison sentence that could last for decades. The film features inflammatory supporting performances by Randy Quaid and John Hurt as longtime locked-up fellow prisoners. Parker’s superb direction is feverishly propelled by Moroder’s powerful electric music score.

Parker and Stone confessed to taking dramatic liberties (the “madhouse” scene didn’t happen in the chronology as presented in the film) and stretching the truth. The Turkish wardens and guards are unremittingly unmerciful, but aren’t there prisons all over the world that are actually unmerciful? This remains a story of a young man’s resilience through inhumane conditions.

If there’s anything to love about ’70’s cinema, the true Golden Age of Hollywood, is that movies routinely dared to explore tough subject matter and the stories themselves were strong and fearless. This maverick attitude pertains to “Midnight Express.”

129 Minutes. Rated R.

Film Cousins: “Papillon” (1973); “Brokedown Palace” (1999); “Bus 174” (2002); “Argo” (2012).

 

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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