Follow TV Tropes


Film / Midnight Express

Go To

"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 is prison slang for an inmate's escape attempt. A year later in 1978, a film adaptation 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 Academy Awards.

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.
    • Billy is on the receiving end of this when Hamidou punishes him for stealing a blanket; stripping Billy, hanging him upside down, and clubbing his feet.
  • Artistic Licence – History: The reason the film is loosely based on a true story.
    • One of the inmates makes advances on Billy, which he keeps declining. In real life they had an affair.
    • The film shows Billy's girlfriend being with him when he's arrested. He was alone in real life.
    • Billy didn't kill his head guard. It was done by another, recently paroled inmate.
    • While each passenger was searched before the flight in real life, the film doesn't mention that this was because of a real life hijacking event that happened four weeks previously. There are a couple of small references to it, but they're easy to miss.
    • Billy's speech in the courtroom was much shorter and less dramatic in real life.
  • 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. Meanwhile several of the actors, including the Customs' Agent, simply speak Maltese.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Hamidou; when we first meet him, he beats Billy for stealing a blanket which leads to him stripping Billy to just his underwear and brutally clubbing his feet. After doing this, Hamidou spreads Billy's legs apart and gazes between his legs in a lascivious manner. Thankfully, the scene fades to black as he pulls Billy up but you don't need to see what happens to know what Hamidou was about to do to Billy.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Billy is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in one of the worst examples of the Hellhole Prison trope in film history for trying to smuggle about half a dozen packets of hashish.
  • Hellhole Prison: The primary scenery.
  • Hey, Wait!: Billy is about to walk out of the prison, when the guard at the gate calls him back... but he just tosses the keys to him.
  • Idiot Ball: It doesn't get much more idiotic than smuggling drugs in a country known to have very harsh punishments for drug smugglers.
  • 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.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Erich is gay or bisexual and attracted to Billy who is heterosexual. Erich attempts to seduce Billy in the shower but Billy kindly indicates he doesn't feel the same way.
  • 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.
  • Make an Example of Them: The reason the Turkish authorities increase Billy's sentence to thirty years, in order to deter other drug smugglers.
  • Mistaken for Terrorist: Billy is caught because security is on high alert due to a recent hijacking and gets mistaken for a bomber because the hashish is taped to his chest.
  • 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).
  • Rape and Revenge: Billy is raped by Hamidou, the sadistic chief guard early on in the movie. Later, when he goes to make his final escape attempt, Hamidou takes Billy to a private room to rape him again. However, this time Billy manages to gain the upper hand and push Hamidou into a coat hook in the wall, impaling him through the neck and killing him.
  • Situational Sexuality: Played with and averted; Billy becomes close with Erich, a Swedish tourist and fellow prisoner, and the two are seen bathing together, exercising with each other in just their underwear, and growing intimate. Later, the two are alone with each other, showering, when Erich attempts to seduce Billy, touching and kissing him leading us to believe the two have become romantic with each other. However, Billy gently pulls away, kisses Erich's hand, and shakes his head "no", making it clear that while he cares for Erich, he isn't attracted to him.
  • 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.note 
  • Undiscriminating Addict: John Hurt's character is a heroin addict, but as he's unable to get his hands on the real stuff in a Turkish prison, he's reduced to improvising alternate sources of opioids. In his introductory scene, he's mainlining gastroenteritis medication for the codeine.
  • 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: This film is not only pretty much the Trope Codifier (if not Trope Maker), but it also originates a particular variant of this in which a woman flashes her breasts and presses them in lieu of her hand, which has been constantly parodied. Interestingly, Billy's girlfriend is doing that to see if Billy will react from his Thousand-Yard Stare Heroic BSoD, 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.