Screenplay written by Oliver Stone
Based upon the memoir by William Hayes with William Hoffer
Directed by Alan Parker
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
When I take time to think of the filmmakers who have entertained and influenced me in the greatest ways over the years, Alan Parker is one who will always make his way onto such a list. While his name is not as recognizable as Scorsese, Coppola or Spielberg, Parker has created a body of work that can stand shoulder to shoulder with any films from those aforementioned filmmaking giants.
The oeuvre of Alan Parker includes, but is not at all limited to, the innovative children's musical gangster film "Bugsy Malone" (1976), the gritty, groundbreaking, R Rated high school musical, "Fame" (1980), the brutal divorce drama "Shoot The Moon" (1982), the disturbing rock film adaptation of "Pink Floyd: The Wall" (also from 1982), the intimate post Vietnam war mood piece "Birdy" (1986), the voodoo horror film "Angel Heart" (1987) and the controversial Civil Rights film"Mississippi Burning" (1989).
Even after having seen those films, I stll found myself not having had seen what is considered to be his most controversial film, 1978's iconic Turkish prison docudrama "Midnight Express." Well, as of just last night, "Midnight Express" and I met at last and it was a long time coming. I could now finally experience what I have only heard about in bits and pieces over the years as well as see quite possibly where Parker's filmmaking strengths accelerated him into being one of the great directors of modern cinema.
The film begins on October 6, 1970 with the sounds of an accelerated heartbeat. We are quickly introduced to young Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), an American tourist about to depart Istanbul with his sweet faced girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). Unbeknownst to her, Billy has wrapped 2 kilos of hashish around his body, hoping to smuggle it all back to the United States to sell amongst his friends. Hayes' illicit plans are rapidly snuffed as he is apprehended and arrested at the airport, just as he is about to board the plane Susan is now safely on. Billy is quickly thrown through the Turkish legal system and is eventually sentenced and transferred to a Turkish prison to serve a four year and two month imprisonment for drug possession.
As Hayes' family and attorney in America try to rescue him through court appeals, Billy runs afoul of the insidious Rifiki (Paolo Bonacelli) and the vicious head guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith) and is befriended on the inside by the volatile Jimmy Booth (a rampaging Randy Quaid) and Max (a terrific John Hurt), a bespectacled inmate who is mad to the point of being nearly astral. Through this trio, the audience is given a front row seat into the harrowing life behind bars where prisoners are caned to the point of hospitalization, living conditions are gruesomely filthy, and bribery, insanity and the threat of rape by the guards is rampant.
Hayes' nightmare descends even deeper as the Turkish legal system overturns Hayes' original sentence and rules that he is to now serve a 30 year imprisonment, a political move which makes Hayes determined to somehow ride the "midnight express," which is prison slang for "escape."
As I watched, I saw all of the familiar imagery that would become Parker's filmmaking trademarks. The sharp, angular cinematography, murky set design and the forward thinking musical score by Giorgio Moroder all serve to create a level of paranoid claustrophobia that is unrelenting. I also began to truly see the bar this film set in place that all subsequent prison films and television shows would have to strive for. To also witness how ingratiated this film has become within the confines of pop culture was also deeply enlightening. But that said, I found myself having trouble connecting with the material although I was heavily involved. And about midway through the film, I discovered that what was holding me at arms length was the one element that should have brought me into this tale the deepest and that was the film's lead, Brad Davis.
Now, I am not even about to suggest that Davis gave anything resembling a weak performance. Quite the contrary, he is more than up to the task for this excruciating portrayal. He certainly possessed the necessary physicality, yet for most of the film, he seemed to be too passive and not terribly connected to his own surroundings and predicament. He seemed to be too clean where John Hurt, on the other hand, was dirty to the point of being untouchable while also being so mesmerising that you could not look away from him. To me, Brad Davis was surrounded by Hell but I needed him to take me to Hell and I just wasn’t finding myself going there with him, a fault which did hurt the film as a whole.
But then, through Parker and Stone’s dramatic license (more on that later), a crucial situation occurs with John Hurt’s Max that causes Davis' Hayes to unleash his pent up animalistic rage against Rifiki. It is an act of extreme brutality which then lands him into the sanitarium for the film’s deeply effective final third.
All of the trepidation I felt concerning Davis’ performance evaporated within this section of the film, as “Midnight Express” then extends itself into greatness. Parker creates a virtuoso sequence of extreme isolation that descends into complete madness and here is where Davis showed that he is fully up to the task. I said that I needed him to take me to Hell and he achieved that task with a shattering, uninhibited performance which involves a broken reunion with his girlfriend and his final attempt for escape which itself contains his concluding battle with Hamidou. He is beaten, tortured and scarred beyond recognition but somehow, the spirit has remained and it is that very resiliency of hope and triumph that sits at the core and carries this film valiantly over the finish line.
But it seems in pursuit of cinematic greatness and possibly Oscar gold, the truth of Billy Hayes' real life ordeal was somehow lost in the cracks, thus producing an enormous amount of controversy that still hangs over "Midnight Express" to this day. Dramatic license with real world events is commonplace within the confines of filmmaking and storytelling but it seems that Parker and Stone's liberal usage of the facts, especially in a story that possesses more than enough inherent drama, has been seen as inexcusable to the point of being irresponsible. Some of the film's harshest critics over the years have even termed this film as a "national hate movie" with its unforgiving depiction of Turkey, its legal system and its individual citizens, none of whom have redeeming social value in this story. Yes, Hayes was imprisoned for an unreasonable amount of time in regards to his crime but shouldn't that be enough without any of the embellishments?
I have to admit that I did have the same sentiments with Parker's "Mississippi Burning." While tremendously effective and filled with excellent performances from top to bottom, the film also seemed to suggest, inadvertently or not, that the real heroes of the Civil Rights movement were Caucasian Americans and all the poor, victimized, down trodden African Americans needed were the virtuous "White Knights" to arrive to the rescue. It left a strange cinematic taste in my mouth at the time even though I was as impressed with Parker's filmmaking skill with this film as I had been with his previous work. It didn't derail that film on the whole, but it did cloud its overall success in my mind. Upon reading the the deviations from the facts for dramatic license, I was indeed left with that same cinematic distaste and even at the exact same level with "Mississippi Burning." Nothing derailed the film entirely but there is this strange cloud that hangs over it. I also have to say that it was indeed enlightening to see that Parker, Stone and Davis, before his passing in the 90s, have all apologized, on separate occasions, for their transgressions and any offensive portrayals of the Turks.
All of that being discussed, what did this film leave me with on the whole? I gave this film a high rating not because of its long lasting influence and far reaching pop cultural status but because it is almost the ultimate prison film, where the seeds of hope can still survive and flourish even against uncompromising cruelty and impossible odds. It was that core that compelled me and involved me greatly and that reaction cannot be ignored even when there are somewhat questionable tactics and motives behind the scenes and during its conception.
As I previously stated, "Midnight Express" set the stage for all subsequent prison dramas, most notably the HBO series "Oz," Director Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)and "The Green Mile" (1999) and even lesser known works like the hardcore Chicago teen prison film "Bad Boys" (1983) starring Sean Penn and directed by Rick Rosenthal.
With "Midnight Express," Alan Parker revolutionized a complete film genre and its greatness is more than evident. And while it is unforgiving, it is an acquaintance that I am thankful to have made on my lifelong cinematic journeys.