I'd like to spank the Academy

Midnight Express (1978)

midnight_express_ver2_xlgMidnight Express
Directed by Alan Parker

Like most of the other nominees from 1978, I knew nothing about Midnight Express before I watched it. Because it had “express” in the title, just like Murder on the Orient Express, Von Ryan’s Express, and Shanghai Express, I thought I was going to see an exciting train movie. I was disappointed and apprehensive to learn that it was not about trains, but about the horrifying conditions in a Turkish prison. I was fully expecting a movie as brutal as Deliverance, and I was relieved that it wasn’t nearly as bad.

So what’s the story? Young American Billy Hayes is caught trying to smuggle two kilos (or four and a half pounds) of hashish out of Turkey and sentenced to four years in prison there.

The Good: The acting is phenomenal. Brad Davis is truly amazing as Billy as he goes from terror to acceptance to insanity. Randy Quaid plays Jimmy, an inmate who is always coming up with escape plans that go awry.  Norbert Weisser shows subtle sympathy as Kurt the Swede. The sneaky prison snitch Rifki is played with quiet menace by Paolo Bonacelli. John Hurt gives a heartbreaking performance as Kurt, an English prisoner who has been there so long that he has very little hope left to hang on to.

The music is good, with the music in the chase scene being exceptional. It was a bit too synthesized in my opinion, but it’s still good.

I liked that the Turkish wasn’t translated, especially when Billy was first arrested at the airport. It was kind of disorienting, because I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, and that echoed Billy’s experience.

The Bad: Go straight to ugly. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

The Ugly: I couldn’t connect with Billy Hayes. He came off as an entitled spoiled brat. He was smuggling several pounds of hashish out of Turkey, but he seems to believe that he doesn’t deserve any sentence at all for that. Depending on the state he was in, he’d get about five years in prison for that in the US, especially since he admitted that he had the intent to sell. Smuggling carries an even greater penalty, so when he whined about having to stay four years, my opinion of him went down even more. Unfortunately, if you can’t connect with the main character in some way (or at least have some sympathy for him), a movie gets a little dull. You just want it to be over, because you just don’t care what happens.

I was upset when I found out that most of the movie was made up. If you are purporting to tell a true story,there should be more truth to your movie than the very basic plot. According to Billy Hayes, the conditions weren’t nearly as brutal as Alan Parker and Oliver Stone, who wrote the screenplay, depicted. I feel like you shouldn’t defame an entire country just for the drama.

I rarely do spoilers, but I am going to highlight the most brutal moments here so that you can make a more informed decision about watching it (SPOILERS BELOW):

  1. A cat is hung.
  2. One inmate bites off another’s tongue.
  3. A man’s head is squished on a peg and some grossness ensues.

Those are the three most brutal moments; everything else is basically as tame as the things that happen in the TV show Prison Break.

Oscars Won: Best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (John Hurt); best director; best film editing.

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