The fat Turkish warden in Midnight Express doesn’t speak much English . . . but he doesn’t need to. He sweats a lot and grunts while he kicks the crap out of the prisoners.
Young American Billy Hayes (Brad Davis in his cinematic debut) is serving a four-year sentence in a Turkish prison for drug smuggling. The film documents Billy’s descent into madness and despair with the criminally insane all around him (and a decent chance of getting bummed).
John Hurt gives an impressive performance as an Englishman called Max who has spent seven years in prison and is on the point of breaking. He suggests to Billy that he hires a crooked lawyer for his trial, or better still get out via the “Midnight Express” – prison jargon for escape.
Billy tries both methods. He will do anything to get out. He informs his girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle) by letters that he finds the loneliness a physical pain; that smoking hashish helps to relieve the insufferable boredom; that homosexuality is rife; that brutality is ever-present and that the constant violence and squalor make him fear for his sanity.
The physical and emotional brutalisation to which Billy is exposed prompted accusations that director Alan Parker had painted a racist picture of the Turks, but the appalling state of the Turkish penal system represents only half of the film’s argument.
The underlying theme of this true and harrowing story (the real Billy Hayes survived five years in a squalid Turkish prison) tackles our deep-rooted fear of “otherness”, which is an inescapable part of the human condition.
It’s astounding how one of the pioneers of disco, Giorgio Moroder, was able to apply his synths to an Istanbul jail and come up with something so moving and apt. It won him an Oscar, and rightly so.