Saturday, January 4, 2014
(October 1978, U.S.)
"Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?"
That line, of course, is from the classic 1980 comedy AIRPLANE! I begin this blog with that rather infamous quote only to point out that had I not already been familiar with the harsh contents of Alan Parker's film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (screenplay by Oliver Stone) by the time I saw AIRPLANE!, that question would've had no comic meaning for me. Just sayin'...
So let me start with a small story. One night in late 1978 (or was it early 1979?), my parents decided to go to a movie. As was my usual manner, I asked if I could go with them. The said no because the movie they were about to go to was R-rated and for grown-ups only. The next morning at the breakfast table, both of my parents seemed to be in a rather grim mood. My mother, in particular, was not smiling and didn't want to talk very much. I asked how the movie was. My mother replied that it was terrible and was the most disturbing thing she'd ever seen. So, even then, at the tender age of just eleven years-old, I'd just received my first critical review of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Thirty-six years later, very little has changed. This film, which depicts the true story accounts of a young American man's experiences in a Turkish prison during the early years of the 1970s, is indeed, still one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen. How disturbing? Well, I watched it last night for the first time in years to gain a fresh perspective for the purpose of writing this blog. As a result, I'm committed to watching nothing but lighter film material for the rest of the weekend!
Anytime you're watching a film that's "based on a true story", you need to, of course, keep an open mind to just how much is true and how much isn't. The basic account of Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis) is that in 1970, he was arrested in Istanbul, Turkey for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish blocks strapped to his chest before boarding a plane out of the country. Immediately, as the film begins, you're already aware of what Billy is going to try to do and also that he's going to be caught doing it. Knowing this already, you can't help but become overwhelmed with an emotional feeling of trying to stop him. You can actually hear yourself saying things to yourself like, "Don't do it, stupid!" Regardless of forewarned facts, you can't help but feel the horror of watching Billy get padded down by Turkish security and ultimately busted for his crime. You can feel the pain of watching him get taken away by foreign officials in a country where he doesn't speak the language and has absolutely no idea of what's going to happen to him next. In the moments that follow, it would seem that Billy just might get out of this if he keeps his head together and cooperates. But then that moment of, "Don't do it, stupid!" returns as you watch him attempt to escape through the streets of Istanbul. He's recaptured and is now about to begin his new life as a prisoner in Turkey.
From the moment his sentence begins, he learns the hard, brutal life of his sentence. He's beaten early on for merely helping himself to a blanket when he's cold. Like any other prison film, Billy makes friends and learns just how the "system" of his incarceration works and doesn't work; how rules and laws are changed at anybody's whim and just how horrible punishments can get. By 1974, Billy's sentence is overturned by the Turkish High Court in Ankara after a prosecution appeal (the prosecutor originally wished to have him found guilty of smuggling and not the lesser charge of possession), and he's ordered to serve at least a thirty year term for his crime. His stay becomes a living hell, to say the least. There are terrifying scenes of physical and mental torture that follow one another culminating in Billy having a breakdown and beating his fellow prisoner Rifki nearly to death. Following this breakdown he's finally sent to the prison's ward for the criminally insane. It's here where it appears that Billy may finally cave in to the madness of his prison life. Coincidentally, it's also here at the darkest hour that hope finally rises for Billy when he's visited by his girlfriend who brings him a hidden sum of cash to be used to bribe his way out of prison. This visit also provides another scene that has become rather infamous in itself when she offers her breasts against the glass window so that Billy can masturbate and relive (for a moment) the visual pleasures of another woman (geez, no wonder why my mother hated this movie!). Any of you who saw and liked the movie THE CABLE GUY (1996) will remember Jim Carrey's insane homage to this scene when he visits Matthew Broderick in jail (oh, man!!!).
As horrifying and disturbing as MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is to watch, we're actually meant to remember that this is ultimately a movie of hope and triumph. In what can only be described as a freak stroke of luck, Billy kills the head brutish and sadistic guard (played by Paul Smith) by pushing him onto a coat hook. He then seizes the opportunity to escape by putting on the guard's uniform and managing to walk out of the front door. In the epilogue, it's explained that on the night of October 4, 1975 Billy Hayes successfully crossed the border to Greece, and arrived home at JFK airport three weeks later. Triumph wins the day, and as an American movie viewer, one can't help but feel a sense of heroic pride knowing that sometime ago in history, an American put one over on the brutally sadistic criminal justice system of a foreign country. Is that a particularly PC attitude to have these days? Who gives a shit! In the end, I'm just glad that Billy Hayes sent out a great big "fuck you!" to the country of Turkey!
Although MIDNIGHT EXPRESS has received critical praise since its release, it's also often suffered negative criticism for being "anti-Turkish". All Turks in this film, whether guardian or prisoner, are portrayed as swine, degenerate losers and stupid slobs. One, of course, can easily argue that Billy Hayes could've been arrested anywhere in the world and that such negative adjectives could be applied to any nation, even our own. This, perhaps, is where the question of accuracy of "based on a true story" can come into play. Were the Turks this brutal and terrifying? Were they, perhaps, a more animated people as depicted in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)? True accuracy can only really lie with those who experience these events for themselves (like Billy Hayes). The rest of us are just clueless, everyday schmucks who go to the movies to gain a sense of worldly experiences. We have only what Hollywood will tell us in order to sell movie tickets. The rest of our own knowledge must rely on reading, research and (I suppose) our own sense of fairness and prejudices (good or bad, right or wrong). One thing's for sure...that great line from AIRPLANE! didn't come from being one hundred percent PC about things. That's why it's so damn funny!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Billy Hayes (voiceover): "To the Turks, everything is "shurla burla", which means "like this, like that". You never know what will happen. All foreigners are "ayip", they're considered dirty. So is homosexuality, its a big crime here, but most of them do it every chance they get. There are about a thousand things that are "ayip". For instance, you can stab or shoot somebody below the waist but not above because that's intent to kill. So everyone runs around stabbing everyone else in the ass. That's what they call Turkish revenge. I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy."