Saturday, August 03, 2013

movie review: Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978)
Directed by Alan Parker

This movie (and the book it's based on) did a lot to dissuade Westerners from travelling to Turkey. It's the sort-of true story of Billy Hayes, an American who was caught trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish out of Istanbul and was put in prison for it. When Midnight Express was released, Turks were offended at the film's brutish, one-dimensional depiction of their country, and spoke out vehemently against it. Decades later, scriptwriter Oliver Stone admitted he had exaggerated Hayes' original story, and he and Hayes both apologized to the Turks for the overly harsh portrayal of their country.

Upon watching Midnight Express, I definitely thought it was, well, unsubtle. No one would dispute that prison conditions at the time in Turkey had room for improvement, but there is something distinctly unsavoury about the way all the Turks in the movie are portrayed: they're almost all cruel, or stupid, or both. There is a lot of "dark-skinned other" happening here on screen, a lot of caricature and cartoon.

That said, there are still some things that make the film worth watching, chief among them the actors. The late Brad Davis is amazing as Billy. He plays the character as someone who does something unbelievably dumb and then realizes far too late what he has sacrificed in his moment of stupidity. He's capable of acting in anger when pushed over the edge, but for the most part remains surprisingly sweet-natured and open. John Hurt is wonderful as the wry, sensitive Max, a Brit with a drug addiction who seems to spend equal amounts of time nodding off, lavishing affection on his cat, and hating Rifki, the prison's tea-and-all-sundries vendor and chief snitch. A very young Randy Quaid also puts in a good performance as a long-time prisoner who is desperate to escape no matter what.

The movie is definitely sensationalistic and very America-of-the-1970s in its approach, but it's an interesting artifact. If you want to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for what it would be like to be incarcerated in horrific conditions for a seeming eternity, this is the movie for you.

PS: This is totally beside the point, but I was intrigued by how much Brad Davis resembled Brad Pitt when his hair was long, and Channing Tatum when his hair was short.


Mark Landmann said...

Who wouldn't "want to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for what it would be like to be incarcerated in horrific conditions for a seeming eternity?" I've already put my hold on it at the library... :)

Melinda said...

We are all lucky that there is no smell-o-vision yet. That would really round out the Midnight Express experience....

Shannon Whissell said...

Fun. I've been considering adding movie review to my blog, but it's so heavily book reviews of late that I'm trying to remember to write other things.

In other news, of all the countries my parents have visited, Turkey is by far their favourite (so far). They said the people there were gracious and warm in a way completely devoid of trying to sell them something.

I think I'll stick to that idea of Turkey, and leave Oliver Stone's in the 70's. :)