This award-winning film made a huge splash back then. It was based on the true story of Billy Hayes, a 20 year old college kid visiting Turkey, who decided the fastest way to pay off his student loans was to smuggle about 2k of hashish back to America, taped to his body. The kid was a really bad (and obvious) smuggler, he was caught, convicted by the Turkish system, and ultimately ended up with the equivalent of a life sentence (30 years by Turkish law.) The film detailed the beatings he underwent in prison, the corruption of the system, homosexual rape, etc. I remember seeing it at age 15 and being shocked - "This poor, innocent kid - one mistake and he gets this?"
(Much more below the jump:)
The film caused a stir all over the world. It was a stark reflection of the xenophobia toward Arab countries that has become so exaggerated now, in 2006. " Those barbaric Turks!" was the outcry. "Something must be done!" At the end of the special features, this card appears:
"On May 18, 1978, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS was shown to an audience of World Press at the Cannes Film Festival. 41 days later, the United States and Turkey entered into formal negotiations for the exchange of prisoners."
My husband and I watched the film again at home last night. What struck us both was how 30 years have diminished its impact. Not just any 30 years, mind you - the last five. The Bush years. The torture years. By the time the "featurette" - a little promotional documentary featuring the real Billy Hayes - rolled around, we were both literally choking on the irony. This film had Americans (and other nations) up in arms, protesting against the "barbaric" treatment the Turks inflicted on poor drug smuggling Billy. Yet today, what happened to him pales in comparison to the kind of hellish torture that we've just allowed our own President to sign into law.
I was driven to transcribe part of this featurette, entitled "I'm Healthy, I'm Alive, and I'm Free", and I want to share the jaw-dropping irony of it here. Of course due to copyright (Columbia Pictures, 1978), I'll only include sections, although if you have the DVD, I'd encourage you to watch the special features, for nostalgia's sake. To give fair credit, the featurett's credits say it was written by William C. Riead and Chuck Ashman
This by-the-numbers mini-doc opens with a classic crushed-crowd shot of a Manhattan street. The narrator speaks in an authoritative tone:
"Millions of people pass each others on the street of NY city, each day.... For most, things are routine. They take for granted the right to walk that street, protected by a system of laws that guarantees certain freedoms, and that those freedoms won't be taken away without a fair trial, fair treatment, and punishment that fits the crime."
Now the real-life Billy Hayes emerges from crowd, blonde, short-curled 70's hair and mustache, super tight jeans, down vest. Healthy, young, confident - in fact; cocky. He looks much like half the guys who used to hit on me at discos when I was an underage hottie. The narrator continues:
"This man is an exception. In 1970, when he was only 20 years old, he was arrested, and found out the hard way that the American Constitution doesn't fit inside your passport when you make a mistake overseas. His experiences with the laws of another country are almost beyond comprehension. The retelling of his "adventures" are just a reminder of what can happen."
Now we cut to a clip from the actual feature film, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker. We hear the voice of Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, over the (amazing, heart-stopping) scene of him getting arrested by dozens of armed Turkish police at the Istanbul airport. The narrator tells us this is the text from a real letter written to Billy's parents the day after the arrest.
Brad Davis as Billy Hayes V.O.
"Dear Mom and Dad. This is the hardest letter I've ever had to write. I hope, somehow, I'd get "out of this" quickly, so you'd never have to know about it..."
Now, the real Billy speaks. He's articulate, passionate.
The Real Billy:
"I guess one of the first feelings I had was surprise. Because this was the last thing I had expected to happen. This foolish confidence I had. Suddenly the sky fell over my head and I was being arrested....How can this happen. Other people get arrested, not. Not you or I, but other people. "
What's interesting about that powerful arrest scene is that the cops barely manhandle Billy. They tear through all his stuff, and they strip search him -much the same way men by the name of John Williams or Bob Johnson face strip searches at American airports because they are permanently on our "no-fly" list. The first time Billy gets beaten is after he agrees to take authorities to the Istanbul cab driver who sold him the hashish. While out in the open, he attempts to escape. When they catch him, they beat him badly, on the feet.
The narrator continues:
"Hayes had been charged with the possession of a small quantity of hashish at the Turkish airport. First, he was sentenced to five years in a small prison cell, or cogis (sp?), such as this one, constructed in Malta for the making of the movie."
We see the interior cell block movie set. The cell - at least the filmmaker's recreation of it - is austere. It's a series of bunks, no privacy, primitive, dank, etc. It's much like Sybill Brand was in L.A, with fewer creature comforts. But it's the Four Seasons compared to Guantanemo or Abu Ghraib. In the film, we see prisoners wandering around at will, playing handball in the courtyard. The English-speaking prisoners form a little clique and spend all their time stoned on hash and drinking sweet tea. The men wash each other's hair and there's even a steamy sex scene between Billy and a lover he meets there. Wentworth Miller had a tougher time in PRISON BREAK.
The only time people get beaten is when they freak out on the guards. Then, they get beaten badly. Rape is implied. Sometimes they disappear for days.
"Just days before his scheduled release, a Turkish appeals court threw out the five year sentence and ordered that he'd be confined to life. A sympathetic judge reduced that to 30 years."
The narration here is highly misleading. Hayes was originally convicted of possession, but a higher court argued that he had an amount of hashish large enough to distribute. The truth was, Hayes had planned on using the sales from the 2kg of hashish he carried home to pay off his $30,000 college loan (so much for the American work ethic.) The higher court convicted him of smuggling, which in Turkey, carries a life sentence. But in Turkey, at that time, a life sentence by law was 30 years.
At the time in America, we were shocked - shocked! - that just selling drugs would prompt such an outrageous sentence. What a barbaric country! They are insane! They are unreasonable! That was before our own "War on Drugs" routinely began putting Americans in our own prisons (mostly Americans with black and brown skin) for comparable long stretches, for similar offenses.
Things get worse for Billy after that. He freaks out on the guards; he calls the judges that sentence him "pigs," and claims all Turks are animals. He gets a lot of really horrendous beatings for that. Finally, he gets sent to the insane asylum. People in there live like animals. Having exhausted all their diplomatic approaches, his family smuggles in some money for him to bribe the guards. The guard he bribes takes the money and tries to rape him. Billy kills the guard, dons his uniform, and escapes.
"And then, Billy escaped. He did it on his own, because he was beyond the help of just about everyone. As is often the case, his own government couldn't do a thing. He was beyond the reach of the girl who loved him. He was beyond the help of his parents. Like 2000 other Americans who are currently in foreign prisons, Billy Hayes was very much alone."
A very young, very confident executive producer Peter Guber shows up on the Malta set to be interviewed for the featurette. Guber is clearly outraged by the barbaric treatment of this innocent young American abroad.
"It's the common core of anyone who has gone out of the United States and has faced just a customs inspector who says "What's in the bag, move over there,I want to do an inspection." Immediately, you become defensive, immediately you become nervous because, you don't realize - except viscerally - how vulnerable you are."
Cut to the real Billy Hayes, wandering the Malta movie set of the Turkish prison. He reflects:
""To be back out here today, among these people - I know they're actors, I know we're on a set, but my gut feeling is, my fear comes back. That I lived with every day for five years. To look at the Turkish policemen - I mean, I know they've got uniforms on, I know that the set people set them up, but they hit me. I mean, I was frightened when I saw them before. I realize that what I did was wrong. It was obviously stupid. It cost me five years of my life. But I think the punishment should fit the crime."
"The U.N. and Amnesty International report dozens of countries - including Turkey - still retain archaic prison systems and use torture. Recent pressure from American parents and some support from a handful of Congressional leaders have brought about prisoner exchange treaties with Mexico and Canada...so that Americans sentenced in those countries can come home."
For Billy Hayes, there was no treaty. Just the prison slang for escape, "Midnight Express."
After some words of gratitude from his upper middle class dad, Billy talks about how he now appreciates every little detail of life, etc. He ends the piece stating how happy he is to be "Healthy, alive, and free."
And then we finish:
"Billy Hayes' expose of prison conditions, and the story of his escape, have created a world-wide furor, both in the press, and in the courtroom. First, the book, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. And then a film, entered in the Cannes Film Festival over strong Turkish objections. In Holland, Turkish representatives sought in court to ban MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, but the judge there ruled, that this movie will be shown. "
It is astonishing to me that, 30 years later, what Billy Hayes underwent (and remember, he DID commit a crime - there was evidence; he had a trial and a lawyer, and he was convicted by the very clear rules of law in the country he broke them in, he had appeals) pales in comparison to what we as Americans have now legally "okayed" - for "enemy combatants" - whoever they might be. Yet they have no trials, no lawyers, no evidence, no appeals process; they don't even have the right to have their families come in and smuggle them cash (as Billy's did) to help them ride the "Midnight Express." And we don't even know that they're guilty.
The world was so "shocked" at the "torture" portrayed in the movie - beatings and homosexual rape. Again, Wentworth Miller's prison experience is no worse, and he's on FOX. How can the uproar over that film 30 years ago have turned into the national apathy for the horrific Abu Ghraib photos, for waterboarding, for attacks by dogs - for God knows what else these guys have on the menu in their cookbook of cruelty.
This is the kind of irony that hurts. I wish there were a "Midnight Express" for all good Americans, a magical escape from this nightmare we're living in now. UPDATE: I corrected the "200k" of hashish to "2k". Sorry about my metrics.