Midnight Express (film)

Midnight Express is a 1978 prison drama film directed by Alan Parker, produced by David Puttnam and starring Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul L. Smith, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser, Peter Jeffrey and John Hurt. It is based on Billy Hayes' 1977 non-fiction book Midnight Express and was adapted into the screenplay by Oliver Stone.

Midnight Express
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan Parker
Produced by
Screenplay byOliver Stone
Based onMidnight Express
by Billy Hayes
William Hoffer
Music byGiorgio Moroder
CinematographyMichael Seresin
Edited byGerry Hambling
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
October 6, 1978
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom[1]
United States
Budget$2.3 million[3]
Box office$35 million[3]

Hayes was a young American student sent to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. The film deviates from the book's accounts of the story, especially in its portrayal of the Turkish characters, and some have criticized this version, including Billy Hayes himself. Later, both Stone and Hayes expressed their regret about how Turkish people were portrayed in the film.[4][5] The film's title is prison slang for an inmate's escape attempt.

The film was released on October 6, 1978. Upon release, it received generally positive reviews from critics. Many praised Davis's performance as well as the cast, the writing, the direction, and the musical score by Giorgio Moroder. However, Hayes and others criticized the film for portraying the Turkish prison men as violent and villainous and for deviating too much from the material source.

The film grossed over $35 million worldwide against budget of $2 million.


On October 6, 1970, on holiday in Istanbul, Turkey, American college student Billy Hayes straps 2 kg of hashish blocks to his chest. While attempting to board a plane back to the United States with his girlfriend, Billy is arrested by Turkish police on high alert for fear of terrorist attacks. He is strip-searched, photographed, and questioned.

After a while, a shadowy American – who is never named but is nicknamed "Tex" by Billy, for his thick Texan accent – arrives, takes Billy to a police station, and translates Billy's English for one of the detectives. Billy says that he bought the hashish from a taxicab driver and offers to help the police track him down in exchange for his release. Billy goes with the police to a nearby market and points out the cab driver, but when they go to arrest the cabbie, it becomes apparent that the police have no intention of keeping their end of the deal with Billy. He sees an opportunity and makes a run for it, only to get cornered and recaptured by the mysterious American.

During his first night in holding at a local jail, a freezing-cold Billy sneaks out of his cell and steals a blanket. Later that night, he is rousted from his cell and brutally beaten by chief guard Hamidou for the theft.

A few days later, Billy wakes up in Sağmalcılar Prison, surrounded by fellow Western prisoners Jimmy (an American who is in for stealing two candlesticks from a mosque), Max (an English heroin addict), and Erich (a Swede, also in for drug smuggling), who help him to his feet. Jimmy tells Billy that the prison is a dangerous place for foreigners like them and that no one can be trusted, not even young children.

Billy meets his father, along with a US representative and a Turkish lawyer to discuss what will happen to him. Billy is sent to trial for his case, during which the angry prosecutor makes a case against him for drug smuggling. The lead judge is sympathetic to Billy and gives him only a four-year sentence for drug possession. Billy and his father are horrified at the outcome, but their Turkish lawyer insists that it is a very good result.

Jimmy tries to encourage Billy to become part of an escape attempt through the prison's tunnels. Believing that he is to be released soon, Billy rebuffs Jimmy, who goes on to attempt an escape himself. Caught, he is brutally beaten. Then, in 1974, Billy finds out 53 days before he is due for release, that his sentence has been overturned by the Turkish High Court in Ankara after an appeal by the prosecution. The prosecutor originally wished to have him found guilty of smuggling and not the lesser charge of possession. Billy is shocked to find out that he now has to serve 30 years for his crime.

In desperation, Billy goes along with a prison break that Jimmy has masterminded. Along with Jimmy and Max, he tries to escape through the catacombs below the prison, but their plans are revealed to the prison authorities by fellow prisoner Rifki. His stay becomes harsh and brutal: terrifying scenes of physical and mental torture follow one another, and Billy has a breakdown. He beats up and bites out Rifki's tongue and is sent to the prison's ward for the insane, where he wanders in a daze among the other disturbed and catatonic prisoners.

In 1975, Billy's girlfriend, Susan, comes to see him. Devastated at what has happened to Billy, she tells him that he has to escape or he will die in there. She leaves him a scrapbook with money hidden inside as "a picture of your good friend Mr. Franklin from the bank" in the hope that Billy can use it to help him escape. Her visit moves Billy strongly, and he regains his senses.

Billy says goodbye to Max, telling him not to die and promising to come back for him. He then tries to bribe Hamidou into taking him where there are no guards, but Hamidou takes Billy to another room and prepares to rape him. He suddenly and inadvertently kills Hamidou by pushing his head onto a coat hook that sticks out of the wall. Here, Billy seizes the opportunity to escape by putting on a guard's uniform and walking out of the front door.

In the epilogue, it is explained that on the night of October 4, 1975, Billy successfully crossed the border to Greece and arrived home three weeks later.



Although the story is set largely in Turkey, the movie was filmed almost entirely at Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, Malta, after permission to film in Istanbul was denied.[6][7] Ending credits of the movie state: "Made entirely on location in Malta and recorded at EMI Studios, Borehamwood by Columbia Pictures Corporation Limited 19/23 Wells Street, London, W1 England."

A made-for-television documentary about the film, I'm Healthy, I'm Alive, and I'm Free (alternative title: The Making of Midnight Express), was released on January 1, 1977. It is seven minutes long. It features commentary from the cast and crew on how they worked together during production, and the effort it took from beginning to completion. It also includes footage from the creation of the film, and Billy Hayes' emotional first visit to the prison set.[8]

Differences between the book and the film

Various aspects of Hayes' story were fictionalized or added to for the movie. Of note:

  • In the movie, Billy Hayes is in Turkey with his girlfriend when he is arrested, but in the original story, he is alone.
  • Although Billy spends 17 days in the prison's psychiatric hospital in 1972 in the book, he never bites out anyone's tongue, which, in the film, leads to him being committed to the section for the criminally insane.
  • The book ends with Hayes being moved to another prison on an island from which he eventually escapes by stealing a dinghy, rowing 17 miles in a raging storm across the Sea of Marmara, traveling by foot and by bus to Istanbul, and then crossing the border into Greece.[9] In the film, that passage is replaced by a violent scene in which he unwittingly kills the head guard who is preparing to rape him. (In the book, Hamidou, the chief guard, is killed in 1973 by a recently paroled prisoner, who spots him drinking tea at a café outside the prison and shoots him eight times.) The attempted rape scene itself was fictionalized; Billy never claims in the book to have suffered any sexual violence at the hands of his Turkish wardens but engages in consensual sex while he is in prison. The film, however, depicts Hayes gently rejecting the advances of a fellow prisoner.
  • There is a fleeting reference to the popular The Pudding Shop restaurant in the bazaar. It is instead on Divan Yolu, the main avenue through historic Old Istanbul.

Home media

The film was first released on VHS and Betamax by Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment in 1979. It made its DVD debut in 1998. A 30th Anniversary DVD release of the film was released in 2008, and a Blu-ray release was released in 2009.


Midnight Express: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedOctober 6, 1978
LabelCasablanca Records
ProducerGiorgio Moroder
Giorgio Moroder chronology
From Here to Eternity
Midnight Express: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Music from "Battlestar Galactica" and Other Original Compositions
Singles from Midnight Express: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  1. "Chase"
    Released: 1978

Released on October 6, 1978 by Casablanca Records, the soundtrack to Midnight Express was composed by Italian synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder. The score won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1979.

  1. "Chase" – Giorgio Moroder (8:24)
  2. "Love's Theme" – Giorgio Moroder (5:33)
  3. "(Theme From) Midnight Express" (Instrumental) – Giorgio Moroder (4:39)
  4. "Istanbul Blues" (Vocal) – David Castle (3:17)
  5. "The Wheel" – Giorgio Moroder (2:24)
  6. "Istanbul Opening" – Giorgio Moroder (4:43)
  7. "Cacaphoney" – Giorgio Moroder (2:58)
  8. "(Theme From) Midnight Express" (Vocal) – Chris Bennett (4:47)


Midnight Express received both critical acclaim and box office success. According to the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 96% of film critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 25 reviews with an average rating of 7.73/10.[10] However, on Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 59 out of 100, based on 11 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[11]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four in a review that concluded, "The movie creates spellbinding terror, all right; my only objection is that it's so eager to have us sympathize with Billy Hayes."[12] Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "a powerful film, but we leave the theater thinking it should have been more so. It was for that reason that I was persuaded to read the book, which is where I found the story I had been expecting to see on the screen." He also thought that Davis "is simply not up to the lead role. He appears unsure of himself and, like the film itself, he overacts."[13] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "Acceptance of the film depends a lot on forgetting several things," namely that Hayes was smuggling drugs. Nevertheless, he thought Brad Davis gave "a strong performance" and that "Alan Parker's direction and other credits are also admirable, once you swallow the specious and hypocritical story."[14] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was positive, writing that the film "has a kind of wailing, arid authenticity and enormous power. It is strong and uncompromising stuff, made bearable by its artistry and the saving awareness that Hayes, at least, slipped free and lived to tell the tale."[15] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post described the film as "outrageously sensationalistic" and "loaded with show-stopping fabrications," and wrote of the protagonist that "there's never a compelling reason for sympathizing with the callow boy he appears to be from start to finish."[16]

The film was also criticized for its unfavorable portrayal of Turkish people. In Mary Lee Settle's 1991 book Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place, she writes, "The Turks I saw in Lawrence of Arabia and Midnight Express were like cartoon caricatures, compared to the people I had known and lived among for three of the happiest years of my life."[17] Pauline Kael, in reviewing the film for The New Yorker, commented, "This story could have happened in almost any country, but if Billy Hayes had planned to be arrested to get the maximum commercial benefit from it, where else could he get the advantages of a Turkish jail? Who wants to defend Turks? (They don’t even constitute enough of a movie market for Columbia Pictures to be concerned about how they are represented)".[18] One reviewer writing for World Film Directors wrote, "Midnight Express is 'more violent, as a national hate-film than anything I can remember', 'a cultural form that narrows horizons, confirming the audience’s meanest fears and prejudices and resentments'".[19]

David Denby of New York criticized the film as "merely anti-Turkish, and hardly a defense of prisoners' rights or a protest against prison conditions".[20] Denby said also that all Turks in the movie—guardian or prisoner—were portrayed as "losers" and "swine" and that "without exception [all the Turks] are presented as degenerate, stupid slobs".[20]

Turkish Cypriot film director Derviş Zaim wrote a thesis at the University of Warwick on the representation of Turks in the film, in which he concluded that the one-dimensional portrayal of the Turks as "terrifying" and "brutal" served merely to reinforce the sensational outcome and was likely influenced by such factors as Orientalism and capitalism.[21]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Alan Marshall, David Puttnam Nominated
Best Director Alan Parker Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role John Hurt Nominated
Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Oliver Stone Won
Best Film Editing Gerry Hambling Nominated
Best Original Score Giorgio Moroder Won
Cannes Film Festival[22] Palme d'Or Midnight Express Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films Midnight Express Won


Susan's prison visit was spoofed in the 1996 film The Cable Guy, where Jim Carrey opens his shirt, presses his naked breast against the glass, and cries, "Oh, Billy!"

An amateur interview with Hayes appeared on YouTube,[23] recorded during the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. He describes his experiences and expresses his disappointment with the film adaptation.[24] In an article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Hayes is reported as saying that the film "depicts all Turks as monsters".[25]

Moroder's work "The Chase" is often used as bumper music on the American late-night radio talk show radio program Coast to Coast AM.

In pro wrestling, there was a tag team known as Midnight Express. Longtime member Dennis Condrey stated that the team's name did not stem from the movie "Midnight Express" but due to the fact that they all dressed in black, drove black cars, and were out partying past midnight. However, later versions of the team did use the film's theme by Giorgio Moroder as their entrance music.

When he visited Turkey in 2004, screenwriter Oliver Stone, who won an Academy Award for the film, apologized for the portrayal of the Turkish people in the film.[4] He "eventually apologized for tampering with the truth."[26]

Alan Parker, Stone, and Hayes were invited to attend a special film screening with prisoners in the garden of an L-type prison in Döşemealtı, Turkey, as part of the 47th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in October 2010.[27]

Dialogue from the film was sampled in the song "Sanctified" on the original version of Nine Inch Nails' debut album Pretty Hate Machine. The sample was removed from the 2010 remaster for copyright reasons.

In 2016, Parker returned to Malta as a special guest during the second edition of the Valletta Film Festival to attend a screening of the film on 4 June at Fort St Elmo, where many of the prison scenes were filmed.[7]

The quote "Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?" in the American comedy film Airplane! (1980) is a reference to Midnight Express.[28]


  1. https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6be95845. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. "MIDNIGHT PLEXPRESS (18)". British Board of Film Classification. June 3, 1993. Retrieved January 17, 2018.
  3. "Midnight Express (1978)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  4. Smith, Helena (16 December 2004). "Stone sorry for Midnight Express". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  5. Flinn, John (9 January 2004). "The real Billy Hayes regrets 'Midnight Express' cast all Turks in a bad light". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  6. Fellner, Dan (2013). "Catching the Midnight Express in Malta". global-travel-info.com. Archived from the original on 23 June 2015. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  7. Galea, Peter (1 June 2016). "A Valletta blockbuster". Times of Malta.
  8. "Midnight Express Making-Of: a Lesson in Filmmaking History". 6 February 2014. mentorless.com. Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  9. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-07-03. Retrieved 2010-10-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. "Midnight Express (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  11. "Midnight Express Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  12. Ebert, Roger (October 6, 1978). "Midnight Express". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved December 16, 2018.
  13. Siskel, Gene (October 30, 1978). "Book-to-screen trip bumpy for 'Express'". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 2.
  14. Murphy, Arthur D. (May 24, 1978). "Film Reviews: Midnight Express". Variety. 27.
  15. Champlin, Charles (October 22, 1978). "Brief Review of 'Express'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 7.
  16. Arnold, Gary (October 28, 1978). "Sensationalistic Trip on The 'Midnight Express'". The Washington Post. B4.
  17. Mary Lee Settle (1991). Turkish Reflections. New York: Prentice Hall Press. ISBN 0-13-917675-6.
  18. Pauline Kael (1980). When the Lights Go Down. New York: Hall Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0-03-042511-5.
  19. John Wakeman(ed) (1988). World Film Directors. New York: T.H. W. Wilson Co.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  20. Denby, D. (1978, October 16). One Touch of Mozart. New York, 11(42), 123.
  21. "Representation of the Turkish People in Midnight Express". Zaim, Dervis. Published in Örnek literary journal, 1994. A copy can be found at http://www.tallarmeniantale.com/MidExp-academic.htm
  22. "Festival de Cannes: Midnight Express". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
  23. Part 1 on YouTube, Part 2 on YouTube
  24. "Interview with Billy Hayes about 'Midnight Express' on YouTube". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  25. "The real Billy Hayes regrets 'Midnight Express' cast all Turks in a bad light". Seattle Post Intelligencer. 2004-01-10. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  26. Walsh, Caspar. The 10 best prison films. The Observer. May 30, 2010
  27. "'Midnight Express' team to watch film with Turkish prisoners". Hürriyet Daily News. 2010-05-20. Retrieved 2010-07-31.
  28. Nieratko, Chris (February 19, 2009). "Airplane! is the Greatest Movie of All Time". Vice Magazine.
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