“Midnight Express” (1978) dir. Alan Parker, scr. Oliver Stone

When you’re making a feature film about a real-life event, it’s difficult to do justice to that event in just two hours.  People and events need to be combined, placed out of order, or removed entirely, in order to make a dramatically interesting film.  I understand that and am very forgiving most of the time… except I find it hard to do with “Midnight Express.”

“Midnight Express” is a 1978 film about Billy Hayes, an American college student who got arrested in Turkey trying to smuggle four pounds of hashish out of the country.  The film was highly praised, was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture), won an Oscar for Best Musical Score and Best Screenplay (Stone’s first Oscar), and won Best Picture at that year’s Golden Globe Awards.  It’s an extremely riveting and disturbing film, not only for the horrors Hayes faces in a foreign prison, but also because of the Turkish justice system.   He was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but then laws changed while he was serving his time, was retried, and then given 30 years.  Hayes made a daring and harrowing escape into Greece (a country which has traditionally not gotten along with Turkey), who then deported him back to the United States.

If you know nothing about Hayes’s real story, the film will shock you to your very core and will leave you severely wrung out by the end.  The film plays like one of the scariest horror films ever created.  It’s expertly directed, edited, scored and acted, with a classic performance by Brad Davis, who plays Hayes.   However, if you read the original book on which the movie was based, you start to appreciate the film much less.  There’s many similar events, but the film reedits them, puts them in a different order, and then invents many events to make the film more interesting.  Per Wikipedia, here are some of the main differences:

  • In the movie, Billy Hayes is in Turkey with his girlfriend when he is arrested, whereas in the original story he is alone.
  • The attempted rape scene was fictionalized. Billy Hayes never claimed to have suffered any sexual violence at the hands of his Turkish wardens. He did engage in consensual sex while in prison, but the film depicts Hayes gently rejecting the advances of a fellow prisoner.
  • The scene where Billy attempts to escape from the Turkish police and is recaptured by “Tex”, the shadowy American agent, did not happen. ‘Tex’ was a real person Billy encountered after his arrest, who indeed pulled a gun on him, but that was when they were riding in the police car from the Istanbul airport to the police station after Billy attempted to sneak out of the car while it was stopped at a red traffic light. In the book’s account, Tex drove Billy to the police station where he dropped him off and Billy never saw him again. It was a Turkish policeman who translated for Billy during his interrogation with the Turkish detective.
  • Although Billy Hayes did spend seventeen days in the prison’s psychiatric hospital in 1972, Hayes never bit out anyone’s tongue, which led to him being committed to the section for the criminally insane in the film.
  • In the book’s ending, Hayes was moved to another prison on an island from which he escapes eventually, by swimming across the lake and then traveling by foot as well as on a bus to Istanbul and then crossing the border into Greece.  In the movie this passage is replaced by a violent scene in which he unwittingly kills the head guard who is preparing to rape him. In reality, Hamidou, the chief guard, was killed in 1973 by a recently paroled prisoner, who spotted him drinking tea at a café outside the prison and shot him eight times.

In other words, the film’s most dramatic moments were either completely fictionalized or distorted to such a degree that the alterations significantly sour whatever power these moments had.  In addition, the way in which the Turks are portrayed by the filmmakers (corrupt, sadistic, sexually violent) is scarcely better than the way Southern whites were portrayed in “Deliverance” or African-Americans were portrayed in “The Birth of a Nation.”

What’s particularly interesting is that even Hayes’s original book doesn’t even tell the complete story.  Hayes has recently given a new version of events that paints a different picture than the one he gave in the book.  Per Hayes’s most recent account, the time he got arrested was not his first time smuggling drugs out of Turkey.  He actually had done it several times before.  Also, one of his friends was murdered trying to get Hayes out of prison.  I would imagine these things were left out because Hayes was very afraid of being brought up on new charges, but given the statute of limitations, he has now told the complete story, which can be seen here in its entirety (from National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad”):

Hayes has now expressed deep regret with how the movie distorted his story and even returned to Turkey to publicly apologize for how the film painted their country in such a bad light.  In 2010, Hayes, Stone, and Parker returned to Turkey to watch the film with Turkish prisoners and discuss the film.   It’s a good thing the filmmakers have taken responsibility for this, but it’s unfortunately too little, too late.  The film’s popularity over the years has done a lot of damage to the world’s view of Turkey.

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