Midnight Express (1978, Alan Parker)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

The story of what really happened to Billy Hayes — imprisoned in Istanbul for a ridiculously long time on a marginal drug charge — sounds pretty harrowing. In 1970 Hayes got sentenced to life after being caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey, later commuting to an insane asylum. Every lawful attempt to get his sentence reduced or to be allowed out of the country faltered due to authorities who wished to make an example of him. His escape to Greece in 1975 finally led him to freedom. Hayes wrote a book about it all (he subsequently denounced this film’s distortions) and it would make a damn absorbing movie.

But Midnight Express isn’t it. Neither Alan Parker nor screenwriter Oliver Stone is interested in telling the real story of Hayes’ predicament; not dramatic enough? Not enough car chases? What? So instead we get classic overstylized Parker (with a Giorgio Moroder score, no less) and the lurid, superficial violence Stone so deeply loves. The film tells us absolutely nothing about the emotional or social problems it pretends to unveil — it’s actually hard to feel anything positive or negative toward it, but the idiotic script helps. Stone can’t live without some goofy bloodshed so he fabricates nonsense about biting somebody’s tongue off and impaling somebody else on a coat rack, and he even has his hero turn into a drooling subhuman with only enough energy to coax his girlfriend to take her top off so he can lick the glass when she comes to try to help him.

Not that Stone can spare us from his perverse “morals” anyway. If the speech about Turkey consisting entirely of “pigs” isn’t quite enough, there’s also the completely invented sequence in which Billy becomes close to a fellow prisoner and then gingerly rebuffs his advances because of course, even in such a dire and hopeless condition, we must reassure the audience that our red-blooded American hero sees such things as gross. Thank heavens Stone is here to defend us against the Turks, against whom the film is hilariously and bizarrely vindictive, though the racism isn’t really that much more malignant than in Lawrence of Arabia or, I dunno, The Deer Hunter, which seldom get called out for the same reason.

It’s not nice to speak ill of someone who met such an undeserved and tragic early end, but Brad Davis’ shrimpy performance is so completely unappealing it actually almost makes it a relief when Randy Quaid’s pure-ham troublemaker shows up. Not so for John Hurt, stuck with the almost balletic stupidity of the “eccentric” prisoner role; I haven’t felt so embarrassed for such a good actor since I saw Jason Robards sleepwalk through Julius Caesar.

One thing this dreadful but inexplicably beloved film did teach me is that Stone did not require a director’s chair to become one of the most annoying people in the world. Maybe a non-insect will rewrite / remake this eventually (hopefully with a greater sense of irony about its undercurrent of American exceptionalism). Until then, sheesh, this fashionably tawdry macho melodrama seems like an insult to everyone involved in the true story supposedly being reenacted.

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