If Billy Hayes of Midnight Express fame were convicted of trafficking hashish in Canada he would be sentenced to life in prison. For possession of 2 kilograms he would receive 5 years in prison. In Turkey he received a sentence of 4 years 2 months initially for possession. In simple terms the adage: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time springs to mind and wasting sympathy on Billy Hayes seems like the last thing one ought to do. Midnight Express is a beautifully shot piece of film with incredible use of light, excellent costumes, blocking, great performances and a compelling script. The Thirtieth Anniversary release of the movie on DVD along with commentary and a “Personal photo journal and essay” by director Alan Parker make for a very nice package.
The movie hasn’t changed in thirty years and is still a compelling story about a young American who takes it into his head to traffic hashish back from Turkey to the U.S.A. Based on the book Midnight Express by William (Billy) Hayes with a screen play penned by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker Midnight Express the movie is a draining cinematic experience.
Midnight Express is both a complicated and a facile movie which is not an easy feat to achieve. The complicated aspect is in the main character himself. Billy Hayes is a multifaceted kid who is trying to make the best of a bad situation and is also having to deal with a society which is utterly foreign to him. The alienation of being in a strange land is accentuated for the audience by the Maltese (standing in for Turkish as the movie was filmed in Malta) being spoken all around him is not subtitled at all in the movie. Being in a prison with other men for such an extended length of time naturally leads to some feelings of attraction for those around him which in the movie he never acts upon. Billy does however slowly disintegrate under the pressures of prison life until finally he snaps after one of his friends is ratted out by another inmate.
Turks in Midnight Express are straw men from central casting’s department of villainy. While there have been many complaints about this in the past and there are sure to be more in the future the complaints are valid while completely missing the point. To think of Midnight Express as being a movie about Turkey or Turkish prison would be like thinking of Space Odyssey as a movie about space travel. Contextually the Oliver Stone script was penned while America was at war with Vietnam. The “Turks” in the movie are stand-ins for the American military industrial complex and more to the point an exaggeration of the alienation felt by the youth of America from their own country.
The extras on this 30th anniversary DVD are well worth watching with commentary from the producers, director and actor John Hurt are all well worth the time to listen to. There is a slight problem with the extras section and that is uneven sound levels from one commentator to another. The essay and twelve photos make for interesting reading and are worth the effort though don’t really add to the film experience per se.
Midnight Express stands as one of the great movies of the 1970’s and this thirtieth anniversary release should definitely be added to everyone’s movie library.
If you are interested you can watch an interview in two parts with Billy Hayes on YouTube. The interview was an impromptu thing which happened when a Turkish film maker ran into Billy at Cannes. Billy talks about some of the discrepancies between his book and personal experience and the film.
Part One Of The Billy Hayes Interview
Part Two Of The Billy Hayes Interview