THE SUBMERGENCE of identity, its apparent destruction, and its final reassertion will remain, for most of us, abstract concepts to mull over at our will and convenience. As we flounder from crisis to crisis during our youth, many of us imagine ourselves trapped by the self-images we have built up; we then seek physical escape, metamorphosis, new friends and intimates--anything, in short, that promises freedom from this internalized jail cell. But we often lose sight of one fundamental truth behind this search for personal redefinition--that it is a process we enter into on a voluntary basis, often on our own terms. We can pull out of this mind game at any moment, change the rules, substitute the players, whenever and however our emotions dictate.
Billy Hayes enjoyed no such luxuries. Hell, he didn't even want them in the first place. With a girl friend, a loving family and a Marquette University diploma all waiting for him at home, Billy Hayes felt little urge to get in on the angst. What he did want was a cache of high-grade Turkish hash. Quick bucks, great highs and good times mean more to a 20-year-old suburban kid than they should. Most of us eventually learn this lesson, courtesy of the local police department or our outraged parents. Unfortunately or Billy Hayes, it was Turkish Customs which provided this service free of charge, welcoming him to a nightmare all his very own.
The experiences of a would-be American dope smuggler in the hellish prisons of a Middle Eastern country and his eventual escape make up the plot of Alan Parker's shattering new film, Midnight Express, but to so limit the description of the movie is something akin to samming up Citizen Kane as the filmic biography of a newspaper magnate. Like all extraordinary movies based on real people or actual events, Midnight Express has boldly transcended the limits of its true-life story to bring forth a larger-than-life refinement. The five-year incarceration of Billy Hayes becomes an inspiring epic of one very ordinary man's struggle to endure and ultimately prevail which are at once unspeakable in their brutality and incomprehensible in their mindlessness. In the hands of Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone, Billy Hayes is transformed into an Everyman-type hero coping with the erosion of his identity in a nether world of sadism, greed and madness. No emotion goes unexplored, no pain is spared, and in the end, no victory is denied. Therein lies the genius of Midnight Express, a Film so devastating in its momentary power yet so delicate in its final beauty.
The Billy Hayes we first meet is, by any measure, an unlikely hero. His self-image is a familiar and obnoxious one: cocky, fool-hardy American punk bopping around the Mideast with his girl and his stash. Played by Brad Davis in his flashy feature film debut, Billy comes off as a hopeless amateur in the contraband business, the kind of sunglassed shmuck who chews gum and smokes a Winston at the same time while a suspicious customs agent checks his bags. Naturally, Billy does not read the papers; otherwise he would have known about the tight security checks at Istanbul airport caused by a rash of hijackings and terrorist bombings in the summer of 1970. His smuggling escapade comes to an abrupt end; and his ordeal is only just begining.
BILLY IS CONFINED to Istanbul's Sagmalcilar prison, and its human managerie has a telling effect on him from the very beginning. The brash swagger becomes a distant memory, its place taken by a deep sense of shame and humiliation. Billy has been given a new role to play, the new kid on the cell block trying to learn the prison ropes from his more experienced fellow inmates. Everything about the new Billy suggests the chastened boy he has become. He asks about lawyers, means of escape, the life histories of the other foreigners whose follies landed them in Sagmalcilar. Slapped with a sentence of four years and two months for possession (the prosecutor wanted life for the two kilos of hashish), Billy initially tries to play it cool, avoiding any scheme that might earn him yet another savage beating or a longer jail term. A primal fear now governs his actions and he carefully toes the line.
There is a raw, uncontrolled quality about Midnight Express that accounts for the film's magnetic pull on the viewer. The violence is graphic and uncompromising, mindful of no boundaries imposed by discretion or "good taste," whatever that might be. Brad Davis' performance as Billy reinforces this no-holds-barred quality, and in virtually any type of movie, the acting job he delivers might have served as an embarassing distraction. But Midnight Express was just the right film for a newcomer like Davis willing to throw himself into the lead role with precisely that lack of restraint. His grimaces, anguished pleas and explosions of rage are perfectly suited to the part he plays and the circumstances Billy faces. This movie required the self-indulgence that comes naturally to an inexperienced actor like Davis, and his occasional histrionics somehow blend into the texture of a film relying on extravagance and emotional catharsis for much of its appeal.
The supporting cast of Midnight Express complements Davis's performance by providing appropriate counterpoints to his character and acting style. Randy Quaid in particular shines as Jimmy Booth, the slightly psychotic American imprisoned for stealing two candlesticks from a Turkish mosque. Like the other actors in the movie. Quaid has taken on a challenging role, a character whose overwhelming survival instincts constantly inspire new getaway plans while a consuming cynicism eats away any remaining humanity left in him. Jimmy Booth's tough-as-nails bearing clashes with the injured pride of Billy when they first meet in the prison courtyard, but they later develop the unique brand of camaraderie that binds people in times of shared crisis.
John Hurt's codeine-shooting Briton is another permanent fixture in the Sagmalcilar museum of misfits. Know to all the other prisoners simply as Max, he is the old man of the penitentiary, having already served seven years when Billy enters the prison. Max is little more than a shell of a man, balding, emaciated and hopelessly addicted. Hurt has been given the task of portraying the most sensitive character in the film, a broken man who retains an appreciation for the spontaneous quip and the caresses of a pet cat. He most eloquently conveys Max's impotent despair when he discovers the danging carcass of his feline hanging from the cord of a light bulb in the prison, an odious testimony to the malice of the prison guard Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli).
Jimmy Booth and Max figure prominently in Billy's prison years as companions and co-conspirators, but it is another prisoner who most directly affects Billy in his struggle with identity. Parker and Stone have deliberately downplayed Billy's homosexual affair with the Swedish prisoner Erich (Norbert Weisser), presumably to make Billy as sympathetic a character as possible to straight audiences. This is one of several distortions of Billly Hayes' true story that have prompted some criticism of the film, objections that are justified to a certain extent. In all fairness to the movie, however, the relationship between Erich and Billy is very subtly implied, and the need to make it explicit does not seem an obvious one. The discerning viewer will draw the appropriate inference; in any case, the importance of their relationship does not lie in the sexual act, but in the life-giving emotional support Erich lent Billy when he most needed it.
WITH ONLY 53 days remaining on his sentence, Billy learns that the Turkish government, incensed over a diplomatic dispute with Washington, has singled him out as an "example" among foreign drug smugglers; the upshot is a new 30-year sentence, which provokes Billy to deliver an ugly tirade against the Turkish people and nation during his day in court. This marks a new phase, the hardening of Billy Hayes if you will. Billy joins Jimmy Booth in his latest escape plans, Billy goes berserk and mutilates the lifeless body of Rifki (a scene that ranks up there with the most wanton exercises of filmed violence marking Jaws and The French Connection), and he winds up in the ward for the criminally insane. Like some Hieronymus Bosch painting suddenly come to life, the ward makes the rest of Sagmalcilar seem like Allenwood in comparison. Any glimmer of self-respect and dignity has been apparently extinguished in Billy Hayes as he wanders zombie-like among the blubbering semblances of human beings that populate the ward.
All this serves as a prelude to what is perhaps the most emotionally exhausting scene of Midnight Express. After the passage of half a decade, Billy's girl friend Susan (Irene Miracle) visits the prison to give Billy a photo album which conceals several $100 bills. The scene is relentlessly painful, especially when an almost incoherent Billy insists that Susan shed her blouse to give him the first glimpse of a woman's breasts in five years, even if it is through a pane of glass. Yet by some minor miracle, the brief encounter has the desired effect on Billy. He finally pulls himself together, and his new sense of hope brings him back enough sanity to try an escape one more time. He succeeds, of course, and the sensation produced by the concluding five minutes of Midnight Express is one you shall not receive from a movie for many months, even years to come.
There is no question that Midnight Express is a manipulative film. The fervid indictment of the Turkish nation delivered by Billy ("For a nation of pigs, it's funny you don't eat them.") has occasioned protests of the film from Ankara and Turkish students living in the United States. Other touches added by Parker only underline the anti-Turkish prespective of the film: subtitles seem to have been deliberately omitted, thereby inflicting an incomprehensible gibberish on anyone who does not speak Turkish; the swarthy faces of Turksih prision guards and interrogrators often fill the screen, making them all the more sinister and awe-inspiring.
Noting such deliberate ploys overlooks one inescapable fact, however. In the end, Billy Hayes did get a raw deal from that country, or at least from its government. Retroactive sentences offend anyone's sense of justice, and it is a tribute to one Billy Hayes that he finally overcame all the obstacles placed in front of him. Midnight Express tells the story of this personal struggle in such compelling terms that we may forgive ourselves if we gloss over its rabble-rousing undercurrents. Few films have ever captured the essence of the human condition under extreme duress so vividly as Midnight Express has, warranting high praise for its philosophical ambition as well as its technical triumph.