Movies We Like
In what may be the Citizen Kane of xenophobia-ploitation flicks of the ‘70s, no matter how manipulative, hateful, and offensive Midnight Express may be, it’s also some amazingly intense filmmaking. After his first feature film, the misfire kiddie musical Bugsy Malone, British director Alan Parker announced himself as a major talent with Midnight Express, as did the obscure screenwriter Oliver Stone, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Billy Hayes’ autobiographical account of his traumatic years in a Turkish prison. Though Stone famously spiced up the account to make it even more dramatic and has since even apologized to the people of Turkey for making them look like slimy monsters, the film is still an edge-of-your-seat piece of entertainment.
Along with his compatriots Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne, director Parker would usher in a new era of filmmakers who came out of a commercial background. Like most of his pals’ films of the era, though, Midnight Express and a number of his other films are heavy on grit and realistic detail but there still seems to be a slight gloss over their work that sometimes makes their films, no matter how gritty, look like champagne commercials. But still Parker has had a most fascinating career, peeking early with Midnight Express and then following with a run in the 1980s with Fame, Shoot the Moon, Pink Floyd The Wall, Birdy, and then Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning—all pretty good movies. But for an immigrant, it ‘s a distinctly American resume, and in some ways Midnight Express is his most American film in terms of values and the naively dim view most Americans have on the rest of the world.
American Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) was busted while trying to smuggle a couple bricks of hashish out of Turkey. First he goes through the ugly Turkish legal system, where his anguished father (Mike Kellin) and girlfriend (Irene Miracle) try to help him. Eventually all American diplomatic options run out and he is sentenced to thirty years in prison (at first it was four years but prosecutors got it changed). Under the brutish guard Hamidou (Paul L. Smith, Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye) prison life is a hell on earth ruled by deep corruption and constant physical and mental torture including rape by the guards. Billy is then put in the prison’s mental institute, which is even scarier. Along the way he does make a couple friends including a fellow American, the hyperactive Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid), and Max (John Hurt), a British drug addict. He has a little romance with the kind Erich (Norbert Weisser) who teaches him yoga in the shower. Friendship aside, survival in this prison is cockroach like; even Billy’s father suggests that escape is his only option. How that eventually happens is both thrilling and surprising, though apparently Billy’s real-life escape was less dramatic and much less violent.
For actor Brad Davis, after a couple solid TV-movie roles (Sybil, Roots) Midnight Express was his first film and you couldn’t ask for a better showcase of his intensity in a very challenging role. Though occasionally he does slip into a slightly theatrical mode, it’s still a stunning piece of acting. Unfortunately his follow-up film career was instantly dead in the water (he did appear in Chariots of Fire but only had a few lines), before dying at the age of 41 of AIDS in 1991. Still, Brad Davis in Midnight Express will always be remembered as one of the most explosive film debuts ever, even if he was just a one-hit-wonder.
Though Midnight Express “made” Parker, Stone, and Davis to varying degrees, maybe the most memorable aspect that was most revolutionary is the incredible film score, often referred to as the first electronic score, by disco king Giorgio Moroder who was already known as the man who “made” Donna Summer as her top collaborator. (He would go on to pen “What A Feeling” from Flashdance.) Though Tangerine Dream a year earlier had created a brilliant electronic score for the less popular film Sorcerer, Midnight Express proved to click with audiences, putting Moroder’s exciting and more disco-flavored score justly in the public consciousness.
Predictably the differences between the movie and what actually happened in real life were hotly debated as the film made an Oscar campaign run. As the dust has settled and decades have gone by, what is truth? Who cares anymore? It’s the xenophobia—fear of foreigners—that’s still a controversy hovering over Midnight Express (an accusation that was also thrown at Sorcerer and, most definitely, The Deer Hunter and even Star Wars). Yes, the late ‘70s was apparently a scary era for finding yourself among people who spoke a different language and had darker skin color. But regardless of politics, what an amazing time it was for filmmakers to find new ways to exploit those fears and send audiences on a rollercoaster of emotions.
Midnight Express was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Editing (Gerry Hambling), Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), and won for Best Adapated Screenplay (Oliver Stone) and Best Original Score (Giorgio Moroder).