On October 6th, 1970, 20-year-old American tourist Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) had spent some time in Turkey, and was preparing to leave through customs, but he had a secret, kept even from his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). This was he had a couple of kilos of hashish strapped to his body as part of a deal he had made with drugs smugglers, having been assured he wouldn't be searched as he left the country. It was all going well, in spite of his obvious edginess, until he was due to board the aeroplane; there had been a series of hijacks in the region, and Billy was patted down by soldiers who immediately found the contraband...
At the start of Midnight Express there was a caption which informed us this was a true story, and that was something believed across the world such was the success of the film. The whole Turkish prison punchline became a popular one, for that was where Billy ended up having broken the law in that country, and the reputation of the Turks dipped dramatically what with every one of their citizens depicted here as utter sleazebags who would sell their own grandmothers or whatever. Understandably, this was banned from cinemas there and the authorities complained very loudly about their misrepresentation, but the damage had been done, and though the movie had been made by Brits, it was considered wholly jingoistic American drum-beating.
As if it had been made by Americans seeking to ramp up the xenophobia rather than a harrowing exposé of the dreadful conditions in a foreign prison. Even producer David Puttnam claimed he had regrets, not presumably financial ones, but for the effect it had on widening the gaps between the countries of the world, though to be fair if it put off tourists of any derivation from breaking the law abroad then that would not be such a bad thing. As it was, Turkey's public relations took a nosedive for a long time afterwards, but even at the time there were those questioning Hayes' version of events, and it became clear that much of the movie had been embellished if not downright fabricated.
Oliver Stone was the man doing that fabrication - he apologised to Turkey some time afterwards, too little too late you might have thought - but he won an Oscar for his script and went on to forge a career as one of the most recognisable directors of the following decade and beyond. Alan Parker meanwhile was wanting to exhibit his range after the children's movie Bugsy Malone, and you couldn't get much further away from that than Midnight Express, but what it looked like now was one of those European women in prison movies only with men as the characters. It had that atmosphere redolent of seediness and exploitation, inviting the audience to revel in the degradation taking place.
So if you are suspicious of the material, and indeed motives of the filmmakers, where did that leave Midnight Express? Did the lack of verisimilitude harm the movie in any way or were you able to watch and appreciate it as a piece of entertainment? It was undeniably well made in that it plunged you into two hours of utter misery as was the intention, and the tragically shortlived Davis was downtrodden enough to invite sympathy even if Billy was stupid enough to try and get away with his crime. He was surrounded by some decent performances including John Hurt and Randy Quaid as the two inmates planning the prison break, Paul L. Smith was appropriately horrible as the formidable chief guard and Norbert Weisser was a shoulder to cry on as the prisoner Billy almost has an affair with (something which happens in the book but was denied by the actual person the character was based on). The sense of suffering as something not only worthwhile but stimulating was distinctly uncomfortable. Music by Giorgio Moroder.