A STORY OF TRIUMPH.
When Barack Obama became president, Republicans accused him of embarking on an apology tour. Well, here’s an example of a cultural event that did lead to what might be called an apology tour. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for adapting Billy Hayes’s account of his time in Turkish prison, but in 2004 he made a public apology for parts of his screenplay. Three years later, Hayes returned to Turkey for the first time since his stint in prison (the Interpol arrest warrant no longer being in effect) and also ended up apologizing to the Turkish people. What was it all about?
In 1970, the American student Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is in Istanbul with his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). She doesn’t know that Billy intends to smuggle two kilograms of hashish out of the country by strapping bars of the narcotic to his chest. Unfortunately for Billy, their departure coincides with increased security measures at the airport because of terrorist activities, and Turkish police discover what he’s up to. With Susan already on the plane back to the U.S., Billy faces Turkish justice and is persuaded, with a little help from a mysterious American called “Tex” (Bo Hopkins), to assist the police in apprehending the people who sold him the drugs.
Billy, however, takes the first best chance to run… only to be caught by “Tex”. Eventually, Billy is sentenced to four years in prison… but he’s in for a lot worse than that.
A moving tenderness
This movie became a huge hit and has inspired many other stories about Westerners ending up victims of brutal justice systems in various places. There has always been a tinge (or more) of racism in those accounts and Midnight Express is no exception. There is no question that Billy Hayes fell victim to an inhumane system and that his eventual sentencing to life in prison was an outrage. But Oliver Stone made changes to the original book that turned Hayes’s experience in prison worse than it was, and he chose to portray every Turk that appears in the film as incompetent, violent or off-putting in some other way. No exceptions. His script infuriated Hayes, and in the end both men saw a need to reconcile with the people of Turkey by apologizing. Still, as a filmmaking experience, this is compelling stuff. Director Alan Parker (and Stone) portray the brutalization of a human being in a very effective way and it’s easy to read Stone’s Vietnam experiences (latterly illustrated by Platoon (1986)) into the screenplay.
At the same time, there’s also a moving tenderness to how Hayes spends his time in prison and the kinds of relationships he creates, including one that is more or less homosexual. Brad Davis’s breakthrough performance as Hayes is incredibly strong, but John Hurt and Randy Quaid are also memorable as two very different prisoners.
One of this film’s key ingredients is the music. Giorgio Moroder, disco and synthesizer pioneer, picked up an Academy Award, the first time the honor went to an electronic score. Simple but incredibly charged, the manipulation is never simplistic; some of the film’s most memorable moments even occur without music. Midnight Express may have its flaws, but it should never be underestimated.
Midnight Express 1978-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced by Alan Marshall, David Puttnam. Directed by Alan Parker. Screenplay: Oliver Stone. Book: Billy Hayes, William Hoffer. Editing: Gerry Hambling. Music: Giorgio Moroder. Cast: Brad Davis (Billy Hayes), Irene Miracle (Susan), Bo Hopkins (“Tex”), Randy Quaid, John Hurt, Mike Kellin.
Trivia: Richard Gere and John Travolta were allegedly considered for the part of Billy.
Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Original Score. BAFTA: Best Direction, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Film Editing. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Supporting Actor (Hurt), Screenplay, Original Score.
Last word: “I think that there was a lack of proportion in the picture regarding the Turks. I was younger. I was more rabid. But I think we mustn’t lose sight of what the picture was about. It was about the miscarriage of justice, and I think it still comes through.” (Stone, TCM)