A cool blend of contemporary & retro culture

Film School & Chill: ‘Midnight Express’

Cream continues its series of films that you really ought to have seen by now. From cinema’s early days of flickering silent pics to contemporary CGI-packed blockbusters and everything in between, this is the column to turn to before ogling your movie streaming options.

We steer into some seriously intense cinema this week with Alan Parker’s Midnight Express.

Text by Rohan Stephens

 

MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, 1978. Dir., Alan Parker.

What is it?

Oh Billy!

It’s the film that turned an entire generation against an entire country. It did to Turkey’s travel industry what Jaws did for swimming at the beach and what Wolf Creek did for hitchhiking in the Australian outback. The film’s repercussion and effect were so wide-reaching and significant that even as late as 2004, the film has prompted high-profile apologies from those associated with its creation directly to the people Turkey for the damage it has caused to the reputation of their culture.

Directed by Alan Parker in 1978, starring Brad Davis, and with a screenplay adapted by Oliver Stone from the best-selling novel of the same, Midnight Express is the true(ish) story of Billy Hayes’ arrest, incarceration and subsequent escape from a notorious Turkish prison for attempting to smuggle a substantial amount of hash from Istanbul back to the United States. In the film, after receiving a life sentence for the crime, Hayes almost instantly begins planning his escape, but is forced to endure almost five years of brutality at the hands of the Turkish legal system, via violent inmates, sadistic guards and corrupt law officials. It’s a slow and painful portrayal of the disintegration of Haye’s will as he is beaten down day after day, the hopelessness of his situation destroying his family and relationships outside, before his eventual slide into insanity.

The film has prompted high-profile apologies from those associated with its creation directly to the people Turkey for the damage it has caused to the reputation of their culture.

Oliver Stone, relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time, was given the task of adapting the source material for the screen into a first draft with the intention for a more established writer to edit it to completion. The producers, and director Alan Parker, were reportedly so impressed with the result that much of what Stone wrote ended up making it into the final cut, also earning him his first Oscar for the effort. Unfortunately, however, what had been produced was a substantial deviation from the film’s actual truth and mostly at the expense of the Turkish people and Turkey as country. Despite his clear guilt, it almost instantly established Hayes as a victim of a corrupt and backwards society giving him an almost heroic portrayal in his fight for freedom. The resulting product portrayed such a negative image, that the film is almost single-handedly held responsible for a long-lasting dip in tourism to the country from the West.

 

Why should I have already seen it?

The film’s treatment of reality aside, it’s an incredibly harrowing story to watch on screen and the performance by Ben Davis is exceptional. It’s a brilliant example of that raw, gritty, peeled-back film-making that characterised most of the 1970s before big-budget blockbusters like Terminator and Star Wars became the model for success. Much of the film appears to have been shot through a haze of orange dust, connoting a stifling atmosphere of the prison scenes, and it’s impossible not to sense a certain heat and claustrophobia by the end. The violence and misery is almost like hands on your throat throughout, and watching Hayes run free is the equivalent of being able to breath freely again. It’s that intense.

It’s a slow and painful portrayal of the disintegration of Haye’s will as he is beaten down day after day, the hopelessness of his situation destroying his family and relationships outside, before his eventual slide into insanity.

Nominated for a slew of awards, least of which being six Oscars and the Palm d’Or in Cannes, it’s a classic piece of cinema with some unforgettable scenes including a very innovative way to show your recently incarcerated boyfriend how much you miss him through a glass wall. You’ll see what I mean…

 

Where do I find it?

Netflix.

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