Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Brad Davis, John
Hurt, Randy Quaid, Irene Miracle, Paolo Bonacelli, Mike Kellin
Director: Alan Parker
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 121 Minutes
Release Date: July 21, 2009
“I’m Billy Hayes…at least, I used to be.”
Apparently, even though the phrase “based on the true story” opens Midnight Express, neither director Alan Parker, screenwriter Oliver Stone, nor victim and author Billy Hayes considered the film to be factual. Yes, Hayes was arrested and spent some years in a Turkish prison in the 1970s for attempted drug smuggling. But a lot of what is seen here was simply meant to tell a dramatic and entertaining story.
No matter how truthful the movie is or isn’t, Midnight Express still rings out with a disturbing power some thirty years after its release. It earned Oliver Stone his first Oscar, and two years later, would probably inspire one of the funniest lines in one of the funniest movies ever. (For the record: the movie was Airplane, and the line was “Joey, you ever been in a Turkish prison?”)
Billy Hayes (Davis) is an American in 1970 Istanbul with his girlfriend (Miracle), and his idea is to bring back two kilos of hashish to the States in order to make some money off of his friends. But he is nabbed by the authorities before ever reaching the plane, and that's where his nightmare begins.
Turkey had been getting a lot of negative worldwide press over the amount of drugs escaping its borders and reaching western countries, so the courts believed Billy was the perfect opportunity to make an international showing of toughness and an example of a would-be smuggler. The then-current tensions between Turkey and the United States made Billy’s situation seem even more desperate, even though his father (Kellin) arrives and tries to help.
Facing a possible life sentence and a system more focused on the nation’s reputation than justice, Billy’s life becomes a darker and darker hell in the horrid prison conditions. Beatings and torture are frequent, and one man Max (Hurt) believes that the courts will never open the doors to any of them…their only way out is to catch the ‘midnight express’, or escape.
There are the usual marks for prison movies here, including the camaraderie under duress, the attempt to break out, the abusive guards, the aura of homosexuality, and more. For me, what makes the film so striking after seeing it a few times over the decades is the way it calls attention to our present day situation. While we may be struggling today with what does or does not constitute torture, I don’t think anyone would have a hard time classifying the events of this movie in the former camp.
Alan Parker, using the screenplay by Oliver Stone based on Hayes’ book, crafted a dark and unflinching look at one man’s nightmare overseas…so much so that Turkey protested the movie and the way their nation was portrayed. But as mentioned, no one involved considered the movie to be a realistic portrayal of that country. The words “true story” were just too appealing for the studio to pass over.
Nevertheless, there really was a Billy Hayes, and he really did spend five years in prison in Turkey, and he really did write a book about his experiences. Midnight Express might not exactly be history written with lightning, but as an American cinematic classic, it continues to unsettle, upset, and entertain.
This is the best I’ve ever seen for Midnight Express. Even previous DVD versions looked a little dark and murky from time to time, but this Blu-ray offering delivers a cleaner, clearer and more vibrantly detailed picture than probably even the initial theatrical release. Images are much sharper, and darker images show much less grain, with better contrast and a cleaner overall print. This ranks amongst the best looking 70s films I’ve come across on Blu-ray.
The TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is solid; not an extreme amount of dynamic range, but Giorgio Moroder’s Oscar-winning score sounds crisp and clean. Dialogue is well-rendered throughout, and the use of surrounds is minimal but effective for a few larger scenes.
BONUS TRIVIA: This is the first electronic score to win the Academy Award.
There is a commentary track from Alan Parker, as well as the original 7 minute making-of featurette. The disc also boasts three new high definition featurettes, “The Producers”, “The Production” and “The Finished Film”, along with a photo gallery and a few previews. The disc is also equipped with BD LIVE and a fashionable booklet with photos and notes from Parker.
Midnight Express might not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but the basis of Billy Hayes’ engrossing story in the hands of a solid writer like Oliver Stone and a passionate director like Alan Parker helped make it one of the standout films of the 1970s. And this Blu-ray release from Sony is the best way there’s ever been to experience it.