Midnight Express (1978) Poster

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Forget the propaganda: Film shows errors of both sides
sunil0611 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
I can't believe that so many reviews of Midnight Express have degenerated into exchanges of opposing political views that skirt over the film itself. While this may be based on a true story, like any good filmmaker, the director Alan Parker has shown the shades of gray here. The film's message, as far as any fair-minded viewer should discern it, is that the individual and the state (whether one's own or a foreign country) exist in a fragile state of consent with each other which requires fair and proportional responses on both sides. Neither side is totally in the right or the wrong here in Parker's film.

Billy Hayes is not a guiltless, red-blooded hero here and Parker doesn't portray him as such. Hayes committed what would have been a crime in any country-- smuggling heroin-- and he was caught and rightfully prosecuted. He has broken laws and must pay the price.

Just to be on the safe side--

-------------MINOR SPOILERS HERE-----------------------

Hayes is initially handed a sentence by the Turkish court-- approximately 4 years-- that would probably be considered fair in any civilised society for his activities. The prison is tough (it's not supposed to be a cakewalk), but Hayes accepts his punishment and overall stays out of trouble while in the prison. Then, with little more than two months left in his term, and the prospect of release dangling before him, a higher Turkish court-- for obscure and apparently contrived reasons (making someone an example)-- suddenly comes back basically saying he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison for his one earlier slip. At this point the moral compass, as it may be, shifts to Billy. He's done his time, he's behaved, he's accepted his punishment and it's hardships, and suddenly the rug is pulled out from under him.

To all the hot-bloods here who say Hayes was a rich American who deserved what he got-- have you ever heard of the concept of proportionality in law? Hayes did not commit a violent crime against anybody (both in terms of his initial act and up to the time the appellate court extended his sentence), he did not even commit a property crime like stealing or burglary. This is what Parker is saying-- Hayes was in the wrong for smuggling and was justly punished for those four years, but the arbitrary extension of his sentence close to his release, and the sheer length of the term (pretty much a lifer), are grossly disproportionate and unbecoming of a civilised society. In many if not most countries, even many killers are usually sentenced to far less than the 30 years that were suddenly tacked onto Hayes's term, and they don't experience the sort of sadistic torture meted out by the wardens in the jail in this film. It had the stink of scapegoating, and the rest of the film shows Hayes's desperate attempts to survive and escape a system that has become corrupt.

For what it's worth, I'm not an American and I don't in any way harbor illusions of superiority on the part of the West or East. One might make similar criticisms of things like the "3 Strikes Law" in the USA which are also pretty arbitrary. Parker isn't commenting on which civilization(s) is/are superior-- he's saying that there are some universal civil liberties that any civilised society should strive to, and societies both west and east fail when they deny them to the most vulnerable people, namely those sent to prison and stripped of even the freedom to mix with the general population. And note, furthermore, that the Turks in the prison (the vast majority) suffer as much as the foreigners. (BTW, to the commentators who've stupidly claimed that this film is merely "American propaganda"-- Alan Parker is British. If you're going to hurl an accusation like that, at least get such a basic fact straight.)

BTW I've been to Turkey and I've found the Turks to be among the world's most generous and kind people, esp to strangers. And sometimes I do wish that Parker had included more Turkish characters with more agreeable qualities, which (even in a prison) one would be likely to find (and I also found the "comparison to pigs" comment in the courtroom to be inappropriate). But Parker wanted to make this a gritty film with an air of desperation throughout, and for this reason alone one should be careful about extending what's seen in this film to the Turks as a whole.
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A good movie but keep in mind a near total fantasy.
bodie10 September 2003
I like this movie a lot. I believe it is well done and is a movie that can be watched several times. However, as a person who has spent time in Turkey and read the book upon which the film is based, I know that it is a fictional story. It begins with a caption "a true story" but the only thing true about this movie is that someone named Billy Hayes was caught trying to smuggle a lot of hashish out of the country and was sent to jail. The events that supposedly happened to him in prison are fictional. I'm not saying that being in a Turkish prison is a good thing but the brutality presented is just plain fiction. Before you feel sorry for this guy remember that he was trying to smuggle drugs for re-sale in the US. Before you condemn Turkey remember that at the time Turkey was being pressured by the world community, particularly by the US, to do something about the drug flow coming out of the country. This is one movie that infuriates the Turkish government whenever it is shown and I believe rightly so because it caters to the notion that Turkey is some type or barbaric nation with a population that is incapable of human emotion or decency. Having lived in Turkey I know this to be totally false. In addition, with the exception of the skyline of Istanbul in the opening scene, none of the movie was filmed in Turkey. All of the Turks portrayed in the film, with the exception of the prosecutor, are Italian actors. The language spoken in the movie is not even Turkish for the most part. There are some phrases which are indeed Turkish but the majority of what is spoken is some other language. As I said however, I like this movie, in the same way that I like Star Trek; a great story but fiction none the less.
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A Contemporary "Jude Suess"
Cinemanly4 February 2002
Artistically, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is quite well made... I do recall several media reports at the time of the film's release that led to contrary impressions, supporting the deliberate attempt by the filmmakers to do a hatchet job on the setting of this film. The first was Billy Hayes himself, when he first arrived on native soil, having pulled off his alleged escape; he said on TV, "I like the Turks...it's the prison I had a problem with" Easy to understand; few prisons are a joy ride, regardless of nation of origin. From this, I gathered he personally didn't have an animosity against the Turks, although MIDNIGHT EXPRESS goes out of its way to make everything negative about the country and culture. Only the "Western" characters are good and attractive, and the folks selected to play the Turks are corrupt, physically ugly and basically sub-human. The exterior scenes in Turkey itself have a grayish tint, implying the land is a hell-hole, and even the near-universally acclaimed cuisine gets a black eye.

The second thing from the (film's release) period I recall was a discussion on radio that claimed the prison Billy served time in was relatively modern, built in the mid-sixties... and not the Devil's Island PAPILLON setting depicted in the movie. (A 19th-Century British barracks in Malta was used for the prison.) Naturally, some artistic leeway is allowed here, since the movie's purpose is to paint a picture of a living nightmare.

I recall reading the book years ago, and when our hero got his unfair sentence, naturally he was in despair... but at that moment, he felt an almost gallant, resigned acceptance. In contrast, when Billy gave his courtroom speech in the movie (which certainly was a defining moment of the film's ill-naturedness... to quote part of the speech: "For a nation of pigs, it sure seems funny that you don't eat them! Jesus Christ forgave the bastards, but I can't! I hate! I hate you! I hate your nation! And I hate your people! And I f**k your sons and daughters because they're pigs! You're all pigs!"), the three ugly judges actually hung their heads in shame. I wonder if there's a courtroom in any nation that would permit such a prolonged and loud outburst.

The August 30th post mistakenly referred to Turkey as an Arab nation.... so the user must not have seen "Lawrence of Arabia," where the Arabs were the heroes and the Turks were the villains. It's interesting that in the rare Hollywood film where Arabs are portrayed "positively," Turks still come across as barbaric.

A Turkish-American friend has told me, contrary to what others here are thinking that the film couldn't really prejudice the viewer, that the film has achieved one of its purposes, to leave a sore, anti-Turkish taste in mouths. Keeping in mind that Americans are generally ignorant of the ways of many foreign nations, this film continues, even today, of being the only source of information most Americans have about Turkey. As cinematically effective and wonderfully made this film is, there's a disturbing side to MIDNIGHT EXPRESS that makes it mildly resemble a contemporary "Jude Suess," or THE ETERNAL JEW ("Der Ewige Jude").
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Interview with the real Billy on YouTube!!!
riffed0416 February 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This movie claims to be based on a true story but just like many other Hollywood productions, it warps the truth to an unrecognizable mess. If you want to hear the real story behind the movie, you should see the interview with the real "Billy Hayes" on YouTube at:



The real "Billy Hayes" even says that he'd like to go back to Turkey to visit Istanbul. Now that's a slap on the face of the producers of the movie who have demonized all Turks for their personal gain of a statue. They would have received more Oscars if they portrayed the events in realistic terms as "Billy" explains in the interview.

In my opinion, the story of how the real "Billy" made it to the border after he ran away from the prison, would make a wonderful action/adventure movie. Of course, that's where the movie ends, having achieved its purpose of slandering a complete nation.

Down with Hollywood!! Long live YouTube for giving a voice to the suppressed truth!
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Haven't seen this many ugly people in one movie!
Jude Johnson17 December 2009
Wow. This was disturbing. I live in Nottingham, I have many Turkish friends who study here. If I didn't know them, I'd probably think that there wasn't a single Turk who is nice and pleasant... Some parts were actually funny. The judge (in Billy's hate monologue scene) was sounding exactly like Jabba the Hutt! I've heard people speak Turkish around me, so I knew the language which was supposed to be Turkish in the movie, wasn't. Come on people... Feels like this movie was made to make Turks look bad in every way possible. I've read an interview and I learnt that the real Billy Hayes was truly disappointed with the portrayal of Turkish people in the film. Anyway, this movie was fun to watch but would be ignorant to believe. Have a good one
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What a tense movie!
madmad21 May 2002
It's interesting to note the comments on this movie.

I saw it on TV last night, not for the first time, and I noticed how the Turks in the film are all one-dimensional bad people, and physically ugly to boot. I also read that many of the scenes are completely fictional. I am not one of those people who think that a "true" story must be completely true; I think that the purpose of movies is to entertain, and this one certainly does that, if in a harrowing way. But, given the politics of our time, if the author of the screenplay wanted to create a demon people for dramatic effect, perhaps it would have been better to have set the story in a fictional or unidentified country.

The other observation I would make is, we are not much better than they are. We regularly sentence people to ungodly amounts of prison time for drug offenses, both on a state and federal level. Our prisons are no picnic, either, with many of the same sorts of things that were portrayed in the movie happening right here at home.

So, go check "the man in the mirror" before you condemn anyone else.
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When you're busted for drugs over there!
yenlo2 October 2002
While this film is entertaining to watch and has its level of suspense at various points it is not a truly `true story' much of it according to the real Billy Hayes never happened and his eventual escape is very different from what is depicted in this motion picture. It also tends to demonize the nation of Turkey and presents a distorted view of its people. Is it possible to have sympathy for the main character? He was fully aware of what he was doing and knew the consequences should he be caught so sympathy is on an individual basis. You may have sympathy or may not.

A number of years ago a public service commercial narrated by actor Hal Holbrook frequently ran on Television, which told of Americans being held in foreign prisons. He spoke of one American held in a Turkish prison. Was it Billy Hayes? The commercial ends with the line `When you're busted for drugs over there you're in for the hassle of your life' That's the message this film was intended to send out irregardless if the events in it were true or fictionalized for dramatic purposes. As always purchase or rent a copy to see the uncut unedited version.
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Idiotic and blatantly racist
caespoo8 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I can't for the life of me, understand those that think the idiocy, the blatant racism, the retarded angle with which A WHOLE NATION OF 70 MILLION PEOPLE! are portrayed as subhuman pigs in this film would have anything to do with being "artistic" or "true story" etc... Turkey takes millions of tourists every year, that go there on their own free will, again and again, millions and millions of western tourists for chrissakes! How in the world could this dumb movie have anything to do with reality?! It is just simply amazing and telling of our times that this racist filth is taken seriously and rated so high to boot! Well done idiots!
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Very Powerful Film, Despite Several Distortions of The Real Story.
jbartelone9 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Midnight Express tells the story of a young American, Billy Hayes, who was arrested in 1970 for possession of Hashish in Istanbul Turkey. The film chronicles Billy's journey into the nightmarish hell of the Turkish prison. Slowly, the viewer begins to see how Billy's personality begins to change from a fun-loving individual, to a decaying vegetable as the justice system betrays him. Originally sentenced to 4 years and two months, the head prosecutor successfully appeals the verdict to the Turkish Supreme Court, forcing the trial court judge to resentence Billy to a minimum of 30 years.

The torture scenes involving Billy getting sadistically beaten by the prison guard Hamadu are very painful to watch, especially a scene early on in the film where Billy is strung up by his ankles and beaten on a rack for taking a blanket without permission. Billy and his inmates escape plans provide great dramatic tension in a terrific narrative style. Ultimately, Billy engages in a brutal fight with an inmate named Rifki, whom everyone hates, especially Billy, because Rifki rats on all of the prisoners. Rifki likes to make life even more miserable for the inmates. As punishment, Billy is sent to the prison's Section 13 for the criminally insane.

Billy is given bribe money by his girlfriend Susan who comes to see him in a heartbreaking scene. Almost all of Billy's inner-strength is taken away by the harsh realities of the prison. However, he is able to say "I love you" through many tears.

The head guard Hamidou refuses to be bought, and takes Billy to the Sanitarium where he beats him, and tries to have sex with him. Billy charges the guard, rams the guard's head into a spike on the wall, killing him. Stealing his uniform, Billy escapes the prison and shortly afterward we learn that he arrived home with his family 3 weeks later.

I have actually read Billy Hayes' book, Midnight Express. In reality, Billy did not have any major quarrels with the Turkish people. The film shows the opposite. There was really only one guard that treated him badly, but nowhere near what Hamidou did in the movie. In reality, Billy never was transferred to the insane part of the prison for fighting. He had one minor altercation with an inmate. The book talks more about the unsanitary conditions of the prison. (There are many instances in the book that will make you want to surrender your lunch, unfortunately.)

The biggest distortion is that in real-life, Billy Hayes never killed any guard as a part of his escape plan. He simply got out one night and swam across the boarder into Greece and that was it.

There are differences in how the film was made as well. The Turkish Government was outraged at how this movie distorted the real Billy Hayes case and refused to allow the movie to be filmed there. Most of the film was shot off the island of Malta. A good deal of the language spoken in the movie is NOT Turkish, but Maltese, which to the untrained ear, is often mistaken for Turkish dialect.

Nevertheless, I rate the film highly because it is still a very good movie with great acting, music, and dramatic tension. Amazingly, the actor who played Billy Hayes, Brad Davis, died of AIDS. He did an excellent job as the real Billy Hayes. In my view, many scenes had to be changed for dramatic effect. You will remember this film forever. It will undoubtedly make you think twice about doing something stupid in a foreign country! Despite its flaws, when compared to Billy Hayes' real-life story, Midnight Express is still a very emotional film that withstands the test of time. It would be a 10/10 if it were closer to the truth. However, the film is still excellent and is strongly recommended viewing.
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Completely biased, dishonest and one-sided movie
bakdeniz21 February 2007
First of all, the movie has inaccurate portrayal of the events and it is dishonest, more violent as a national hate-film. Many hearts were broken in Turkey" due to this film. Although the film is set largely in Turkey, most of the location work was done in Malta, using local actors along with some Greeks and Armenians playing Turks. At some occasions in movie, people supposedly speaking Turkish are, in fact, speaking Maltese. Moreover most of the supposedly Turkish dialogs are so inarticulate that they cannot be understood even by natives. Throughout the whole film, Turks figure as brutes, militarists, bloodthirsty, stupid and evil torturers and sadistic, in brief as true "bastards". Their image is a real caricature: ugly, with a mustache, badly shaved, suntanned, with eyes and hair very dark. They are stereotypical persons, who, even when they are killed in the film, they always have the lot they deserve! In an interview in 1984 producer David Puttnam admitted that the film is based on a "dishonest book".

Billy Hayes reveals himself 20 years after his release, that what is presented in the movie is a very exaggerated and fictional version of what happened to him in the prison in Istanbul, Turkey.

Finally, after 25 years, Oliver Stone has apologized to Turkey for this film in 2004 when he visited Turkey. He admitted that he did not do any research about the so called "true story" of Billy Hayes before he wrote the script. This hate-film has been definitely affected the relations between Turkish and American people as well as Turkish tourism.
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