Film / Midnight Express

"What is a crime? What is punishment? It seems to vary from time to time and place to place. What's legal today is suddenly illegal tomorrow because society says it's so, and what's illegal yesterday is suddenly legal because everybody's doin' it, and you can't put everybody in jail. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm just saying that's the way it is."
Billy Hayes

The autobiography Midnight Express was written by Billy Hayes and published in 1977. The title was prison slang for an inmate's escape attempt. A year later in 1978, the film version directed by Alan Parker and starring Brad Davis as Billy Hayes was released. It was the breakthrough project of Oliver Stone, whose screenplay won him his first of three Oscars.

On October 7, 1970, after a stay in Istanbul, a US citizen named Billy Hayes is arrested by Turkish police, on high alert due to fear of terrorist attacks, as he is about to fly out of the country with his girlfriend. After being found with several bricks of hashish taped to his body (about two kilograms in total) he is sentenced to four years and two months' imprisonment on the charge of drug possession. At Sağmalcılar prison, his life becomes an utter living hell. His case is appealed, but instead, he is made an example of by being re-sentenced to thirty years (the punishment for drug smuggling). With his options running out, his only option is the Midnight Express.

This work features examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: On his first day in prison, Hayes sees a bunch of prisoners getting their feet clubbed.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Though the characters technically speak Turkish, it's so heavily accented and grammatically-mangled that it can be downright painful for a native speaker to listen to. Ironic, considering the film was a Turkish-US-UK co-production.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Hamidou.
  • Hellhole Prison: The primary scenery.
  • Important Haircut: Billy's head is shaved upon him being remanded. He keeps it cut short for the film's duration as a constant reminder.
  • Karma Houdini: The prosecutor and the police that appears in the beginning.
  • Language Barrier: Billy, an American, doesn't speak Turkish at the onset of the film. By the end of the film however, he's picked up enough to fool the guards and escape.
    • Ironically, this is also the case with native speakers, since the Turkish in the movie is infamously bad.
  • Mugged for Disguise: At the end of the film, Billy Hayes takes the uniform of the guard and walks his way out to freedom.
  • Prison Rape: This movie established the term "Turkish prison" as a byword for a very, very bad prison experience (ironically, American prisons have picked up this reputation among foreign tourists).
  • Translation Convention: Averted. Turkish is spoken without subtitles, putting the viewer along in Billy's position. Most of what is said in Turkish can be inferred from context though.
    • The trend continues until the end of the movie. After spending five years in prison, Billy must have learned some Turkish - he actually speaks in Turkish to the guard that mistakes Billy for another guard and throws him the keys in the climax.
    • No one on set actually spoke Turkish however, and the Maltese actors had to learn their lines phonetically. As a result, the 'Turkish' on display is at best heavily accented, and at worst downright broken to the point of being unidentifiable as said language. Despite the film technically being a US-UK-Turkish co-production, the latter country's lack of an organized film industry and the time and the inability to shoot on location meant that native speakers couldn't be sourced for the movie.
    • Of the five main Turkish characters: Hamidou (the big nasty prison guard) is played by a Jewish-American, Rifki an Italian, the prosecutor by an Anglo-Armenian and the chief airport cop a Turk. Only Yesil (Billy's lawyer) is Maltese.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film version greatly exaggerated the conditions of Hayes's time in prison; the book is more true to real life than the film. Almost all the sensational elements are completely fictional. The sexual abuse and torture was made up or exaggerated, Billy Hayes never killed the head guard, and his real-life affair with a fellow inmate was almost completely removed from the film version. Hayes' escape from prison was also different. Rather than killing Hamidou and stealing his uniform, he stole a rowing boat, rowed it to shore, and made his way to the Greek border.
  • Window Love: Pretty much the Trope Codifier (if not Trope Maker). Interestingly, Billy's girlfriend is doing that to see if Billy will react from his Thousand-Yard Stare Heroic B.S.O.D., which he doesn't - and thus it becomes Fan Disservice.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The Turks sentence Billy at first with various months of prison, which are hellish, but Billy is (barely) able to withstand them. Then on the day of his hearing, the Turks sentence him to twenty years. Billy breaks down right there and gives a "The Reason You Suck" Speech/A Plague on Both Your Houses tirade to the entire Turkish justice system when he is allowed to talk, also pointing out that his alleged "defense attorney" and the representative of the U.S. Embassy are just standing there and did nothing to prevent this, even after assuring him that they would.