Midnight Express (1978)


Brad Davis (Querelle, Chariots of Fire) stars in this true story about an American named Billy Hayes who was sent to a dehumanizing Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hash over the border. Originally sentenced to four years, Hayes learned just 53 days before his parole that the Turkish government upped his term to a minimum of 30 years. While his girlfriend and family fought for him at home, Hayes tried to hold onto his health and sanity in a place where the living conditions are harsh and the slightest indiscretions are met with brutal torture.

Midnight Express is an incredible survival movie that paints a harrowing picture of how damaging confinement and brutality can be on a human being. When his girlfriend makes a surprise visit late in the film, she finds Billy barely able to string words together. The first thing he says that she can understand is, “Take it off.” She reluctantly obliges in removing her blouse so he can masturbate to the sight of her breasts. The scene leaves both of them in tears over the sheer horror of someone’s dignity being so utterly destroyed.

Billy Hayes’ story becomes a lurid page-turner in the hands of screenwriter Oliver Stone (Platoon, JFK), who would earn his first Academy Award for adapting Hayes’ memoir. Stone’s passion for fighting injustice and proclivity for depicting the descent of man are both on vivid display in this early work. The film gains extra real-world grittiness from director Alan Parker’s (Angel Heart, Birdy) masterful location and casting choices. Davis proves himself a star in the making (though his career would be cut short by AIDS). John Hurt and Randy Quaid deliver solid supporting performances as Billy’s two best prison companions. The film also gets extra credit for its sensitive treatment of homosexuality and Giorgio Moroder’s evocative score. With Bo Hopkins and Paul Smith.

Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone), Score (Giorgio Moroder)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Hurt), Film Editing