Midnight Express (1978) has haunted me since I was a child. I was six when it was released, and it didn’t take long for jokes about ghoulish Turkish prisons to trickle down to the suburban grade schools (or, within a few years, my favorite comedy, Airplane! (1980)). I have mentally categorized my 40-year avoidance of Midnight Express as a casualty of my life-long allergy to prison settings, but it’s entirely possible that this aversion was originally instilled in me by the telephone game of playground horror stories inspired by the release of this movie. When it comes to actually engaging with prison movies — and not just my projected fear of the claustrophobic subject matter — however, my reactions are as diverse as the movies themselves. I may find myself emotionally touched by the philosophical austerity of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, or amused by the wild excesses of exploitative nonsense like Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary series, or even gripped by the thrilling crime drama of A Prophet or the hard realism of the HBO miniseries The Night Of… But, just the same, there are myriad pitfalls of prison life as a movie subject, and I daresay that Midnight Express drills into each one with clumsy hyperbole.
Based on the true story of American Billy Hayes, who was arrested in 1970 for attempting to smuggle hashish out of Istanbul and subsequently suffered for six years in various Turkish prisons, Midnight Express needlessly sensationalizes that which is already sensational. I’ve had this problem with Alan Parker movies before, as he seems to prefer broad strokes over subtlety and has a far greater interest in rays of light cutting through murky shadows than he does in the nuance of character and situation. Following a tense opening scene, in which Hays attempts to leave the country with a small fortune in drugs taped to his abs, Midnight Express becomes every generic prison movie ever, and, if prison itself is not a novelty enough, every trope is delivered with the insight of a primary school reader as performed by a Kabuki troupe (I had this same reaction during a recent re-watch of the 1973 prison survival drama Papillion, which was comical in its vigor to highlight every excess of endurance; had nobody in 1970s Hollywood except Paul Schrader ever watched a Bresson movie?).
Parker is more miss than hit for me, in general, with only my boyhood obsession with Bugsy Malone (1976) and a brief teenage obsession with Angel Heart (1987) to his credit. My sense of his approach is that he regards himself more as an artist than as a storyteller, and so reduces his storytelling to a series of emphatic dumbed-down mood points which are designed to allow him to run out the same old nice-looking lighting designs again and again. While much of Midnight Express sticks to Parker’s pattern of dumb-loud-and-obvious, the most Parker-as-artist-esque moment in the movie is as striking as it is baffling, taking a quick respite from the relentless cruelty of prison to fetishize a moment of intimacy between glistening inmate bodies captured in romantic Parker lighting-and-shadows. For a movie that purports to deliver a gritty, serious, and high-minded true-prison narrative, this scene plays like a parodic homoerotic alternative to the decade’s exploitive “women in prison” movies, full of directorial lustful abandon and outside the reality of the narrative.
Brad Davis as Hays is tasked with a difficult role, to be sure, and goes at it with an abandon that a responsible director should have restrained. Davis eerily presages a raw Brad Pitt throughout Midnight Express, but like a gallery of Pitt’s worst moments (and it seems obvious that Pitt took inspiration for his twitchy 12 Monkeys (1995) performance from Davis’ final act). With no help from Oliver Stone’s ridiculous Oscar-winning screenplay, the movie’s most dramatic scenes are laughable, with Davis’s veiny histrionics often the butt of the joke. Aside from a quiet John Hurt (in maybe the most sickly make-up of his career, which is saying something), the acting doesn’t get any better. Randy Quaid is over-the-top from his first minute, and it’s telling that two of the most important supporting actors in Midnight Express had careers otherwise highlighted by cartoony shlock. Mike Kellin, as Billy’s father, is best known for his final role as the pervy camp director in the gonzo horror classic Sleepaway Camp (1983); and Paul L. Smith, who plays the evil warden, made a career out of further exploiting his nasty visage as Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) and the splatter classic Pieces (1983). These actors weren’t cast for their sensitivity to multi-faceted human experience, and Midnight Express is more in their class of expression than expected given the prestige it has been accorded.
In the decades following the release of Midnight Express, both Hays himself — on whose book the movie is based — and screenwriter Stone have apologized for the movie’s one-dimensional treatment of the Turkish people and the many fictional flourishes inserted into Hays’ story. Indeed, many of the moments in Midnight Express that had me questioning, “This can’t have really happened this way, right?” were total fabrications, and needless fabrications driven by greedy sensationalism (and, probably, no small amount of cocaine) that cares nothing for the actual experience of Hays, or other inmates of cruel penal systems. As an act of social activism, then, Midnight Express is an abject failure that trivializes through excess what it feigns to expose. What no one has apologized for, however — and a more damning deficit to its credibility as a prestigious work of humanist art — is this movie ending on a freeze-frame of Hays jumping for joy. This final moment fully encapsulates Midnight Express’ abject failure as a piece of serious late-period “New Hollywood” craft or anything pertinent to art, entertainment or the human experience.