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Midnight Express (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Midnight Express
Original poster for Midnight Express, 1978.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan Parker
Screenplay byOliver Stone
Based onMidnight Express
by Billy Hayes
William Hoffer
Produced by
CinematographyMichael Seresin
Edited byGerry Hambling
Music byGiorgio Moroder
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 18, 1978 (1978-05-18) (Cannes Film Festival)
  • August 10, 1978 (1978-08-10) (UK)
  • October 6, 1978 (1978-10-06) (US)
Running time
121 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom[1]
United States
Budget$2.3 million[2]
Box office$35 million[2]

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

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.[3][4] The film's title is prison slang for an inmate's escape attempt.

Upon release, Midnight Express 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 source material. The film was later nominated for Best Picture and Best Director for Parker at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979, and won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score for Stone and Moroder respectively.


On vacation in Istanbul, Turkey in 1970, American college student Billy Hayes straps 2 kg of hashish bricks to his chest. As he and his girlfriend are about to board a plane back to the United States, Billy is detained by Turkish police, who are on high alert for terrorist attacks. Billy is strip-searched and arrested.

A shadowy American – whom Billy nicknames "Tex" for his thick Texan accent – arrives and accompanies Billy to a police station and translates for him. Billy claims he bought the hashish from a taxicab driver and offers to help police locate him in exchange for being released. At a nearby market, Billy points out the cab driver to police, who arrest him, but they have no intention of releasing Billy. He attempts to escape, only to be recaptured.

During his first night in a local jail, a freezing-cold Billy sneaks out of his cell and steals a blanket. He is later rousted from his cell and brutally beaten by chief guard Hamidou for the theft. A few days later, Billy awakens in Sağmalcılar Prison, surrounded by fellow Western prisoners Jimmy (an American who stole two candlesticks from a mosque), Max (an English heroin addict), and Erich (a Swedish drug smuggler). Jimmy warns Billy that the prison is dangerous for foreigners and says no one can be trusted, not even young children.

Billy meets with his father, a U.S. representative, and a Turkish lawyer, to discuss his situation. During Billy's trial, the prosecutor makes a case against him for drug smuggling. The lead judge is sympathetic to Billy and gives him a four-year sentence for drug possession. Billy and his father are devastated, but their Turkish lawyer insists it is a good result.

Jimmy wants Billy to join an escape attempt through the prison's subterranean tunnels. Billy, due to be released soon, declines. Jimmy goes alone and is caught, then brutally beaten. Fifty-three days before his release, Billy learns the Turkish High Court in Ankara has overturned his sentence after an appeal by the prosecution. The prosecutor originally wanted Billy convicted of smuggling rather than the lesser charge of possession. He has been resentenced to serve 30 years.

In desperation, Billy accompanies Jimmy and Max to try to escape through the catacombs below the prison. They give up after running into endless dead-ends. Another prisoner, Rifki, tips off the guards about their attempt. Billy's imprisonment becomes harsh and brutal: terrifying scenes of physical and mental torture follow one another, and Billy has a breakdown. He brutally beats Rifki, killing him. He is sent to the prison's ward for the insane, where he wanders about in a daze among the other disturbed and catatonic prisoners.

In 1975, Billy's girlfriend, Susan, visits him. Devastated by Billy's condition, she tells him he must get out or else die. She leaves him a scrapbook with money hidden inside to help Billy escape. Her visit strongly helps Billy regains his senses. He bribes Hamidou, who takes Billy to a room, then tries to rape him. They struggle until Hamidou is killed after being pushed into the wall, his head impaled upon a coat hook. Billy dons a guard's uniform and walks out the front door to freedom.

The epilogue shows that in October 1975, Billy successfully crossed the border to Greece and arrived home three weeks later.



The film was mostly shot in the lower parts of Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta.
The film was mostly shot in the lower parts of Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta.

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.[5][6] 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, and 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 Hayes's emotional first visit to the prison set.[7]

Differences between the book and the film

Various aspects of Billy Hayes's story were fictionalized or added for the movie:

  • In the movie, Hayes is in Turkey with his girlfriend when he is arrested; in real life, he was travelling alone.
  • Although Billy spent 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 (27 km) in a raging storm across the Sea of Marmara, traveling by foot and by bus to Istanbul, and then crossing the border into Greece.[8] 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, 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.) The attempted rape scene itself was fictionalized; Billy never claimed in the book to have suffered any sexual violence at the hands of his Turkish wardens, but engaged in consensual homosexual activity while he was in prison. However, the film depicts Hayes gently rejecting the advances of a fellow prisoner (Erich the Swede).
  • There is a fleeting reference to the popular restaurant The Pudding Shop, in the bazaar. It is actually on Divan Yolu, the main avenue through historic Old Istanbul.


The film screened at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. It opened at the Odeon Haymarket in London on Thursday, 10 August 1978 grossing $3,472 in its opening day, a Columbia Pictures record in the UK.[9] It opened in New York on 6 October 1978 before opening nationwide in the United States on 27 October.[10]

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 of the film was released in 2008, and a Blu-ray was released in 2009.


According to the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 93% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 27 reviews with an average rating of 7.7/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Raw and unrelenting, Midnight Express is riveting in its realistic depiction of incarceration -- mining pathos from the simple act of enduring hardship."[11] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 59 out of 100, based on 11 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[12]

Roger Ebert gave Midnight Express 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."[13] 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 Brad Davis "is simply not up to the lead role. He appears unsure of himself and, like the film itself, he overacts."[14] 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 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."[15] 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."[16] 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."[17]

Midnight Express was also criticized for its unfavorable portrayal of Turkish people. In her 1991 book Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place, Mary Lee Settle wrote: "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."[18] 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.)"[19] 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'."[20]

David Denby of New York criticized Midnight Express as "merely anti-Turkish, and hardly a defense of prisoners' rights or a protest against prison conditions."[21] Denby said also that all Turks in the film – guardian or prisoner – were portrayed as "losers" and "swine", and that "without exception [all the Turks] are presented as degenerate, stupid slobs".[21] 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.[22]

Box office

The film was made for $2.3 million and grossed over $35 million worldwide.

In 1978, the Turkish government unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the film from being screened in Israel.[23]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards[24] Best Picture Alan Marshall and David Puttnam Nominated
Best Director Alan Parker Nominated
Best Supporting Actor 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
British Academy Film Awards[25] Best Film Alan Parker Nominated
Best Direction Won
Best Actor in a Leading Role Brad Davis Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role John Hurt Won
Best Film Editing Gerry Hambling Won
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Brad Davis Nominated
Cannes Film Festival[26] Palme d'Or Alan Parker Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards[27] Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[28] Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Brad Davis Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture John Hurt Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Alan Parker Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Oliver Stone Won
Best Original Score – Motion Picture Giorgio Moroder Won
Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Male Brad Davis Won
Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Female Irene Miracle Won
Grammy Awards Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special Giorgio Moroder, Billy Hayes and Oliver Stone Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards[29] Best Actor Brad Davis Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[30] Best Film Nominated
Best Director Alan Parker Runner-up
Best Music Score Giorgio Moroder Won
National Board of Review Awards[31] Top Ten Films 6th Place
Political Film Society Awards Special Award Won
Writers Guild of America Awards[32] Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Oliver Stone Won


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)


Chart (1979) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[33] 26


The quote 'Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?', in the American comedy film Airplane! (1980), is a reference to Midnight Express.[34]

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 Billy Hayes appeared on YouTube,[35] recorded during the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. He describes his experiences and expresses his disappointment with the film adaptation.[36] In an article for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Hayes is reported as saying that the film 'depicts all Turks as monsters'.[37]

Giorgio 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.[citation needed]

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 1978 movie, 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 Moroder as their entrance music.

When he visited Turkey in 2004, screenwriter Oliver Stone - who won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for Midnight Express - apologized for the portrayal of the Turkish people in the film.[3] He "eventually apologized for tampering with the truth".[38]

Hayes, Stone, and Alan Parker were invited to attend a special screening of Midnight Express, 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.[39]

Dialogue from Midnight Express was sampled in the song "Sanctified" on the original version of Pretty Hate Machine, the debut album from Nine Inch Nails; the sample was removed from the 2010 remaster, for copyright reasons.[citation needed]

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.[6]

According to a memoir from Trump aide Stephanie Grisham, during the 2019 G20 Summit, United States President Donald Trump asked the Turkish president whether he'd seen the film Midnight Express.


  1. ^ "Midnight Express (1978)". Archived from the original on 2019-11-14. Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  2. ^ a b "Midnight Express (1978)". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on May 5, 2021. Retrieved January 27, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Smith, Helena (16 December 2004). "Stone sorry for Midnight Express". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 28 August 2013. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  4. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 22 October 2012. Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  5. ^ Fellner, Dan (2013). "Catching the Midnight Express in Malta". Archived from the original on 23 June 2015. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  6. ^ a b Galea, Peter (1 June 2016). "A Valletta blockbuster". Times of Malta. Archived from the original on 2 June 2016. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
  7. ^ "Midnight Express Making-Of: a Lesson in Filmmaking History". 6 February 2014. 2 June 2014. Archived from the original on 7 July 2018. Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-07-03. Retrieved 2010-10-10.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ "London Precedes US". Variety. August 16, 1978. p. 4.
  10. ^ "Midnight Express (advertisement)". Variety. October 25, 1978. p. 11.
  11. ^ "Midnight Express (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on 10 March 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2021.
  12. ^ "Midnight Express Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on 13 June 2018. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 6, 1978). "Midnight Express". Archived from the original on December 18, 2018. Retrieved December 16, 2018.
  14. ^ Siskel, Gene (October 30, 1978). "Book-to-screen trip bumpy for 'Express'". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 2.
  15. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (May 24, 1978). "Film Reviews: Midnight Express". Variety. 27.
  16. ^ Champlin, Charles (October 22, 1978). "Brief Review of 'Express'". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 7.
  17. ^ Arnold, Gary (October 28, 1978). "Sensationalistic Trip on The 'Midnight Express'". The Washington Post. B4.
  18. ^ Mary Lee Settle (1991). Turkish Reflections. New York: Prentice Hall Press. ISBN 0-13-917675-6.
  19. ^ Pauline Kael (1980). When the Lights Go Down. New York: Hall Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 0-03-042511-5.
  20. ^ John Wakeman(ed) (1988). World Film Directors. New York: T.H. W. Wilson Co.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  21. ^ a b Denby, D. (1978, October 16). One Touch of Mozart. New York, 11(42), 123.
  22. ^ "Representation of the Turkish People in Midnight Express". Zaim, Dervis. Published in Örnek literary journal, 1994. A copy can be found at Archived 2021-05-05 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Charny, Israel W. (2021). Israel's Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth Versus Politicization of History. Academic Studies Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-64469-523-4.
  24. ^ "The 51st Academy Awards (1979) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on October 17, 2014. Retrieved October 31, 2011.
  25. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1979". BAFTA. 1979. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  26. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Midnight Express". Archived from the original on 2012-08-07. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
  27. ^ "31st DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  28. ^ "Midnight Express – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  29. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1970-79". 14 December 2013. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  30. ^ "The 4th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  31. ^ "1978 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  32. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.
  33. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 282. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  34. ^ Nieratko, Chris (February 19, 2009). "Airplane! is the Greatest Movie of All Time". Vice Magazine. Archived from the original on February 25, 2019. Retrieved February 25, 2019.
  35. ^ Part 1 on YouTube, Part 2 on YouTube
  36. ^ "Interview with Billy Hayes about 'Midnight Express' on YouTube". Archived from the original on 2012-09-20. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  37. ^ "The real Billy Hayes regrets 'Midnight Express' cast all Turks in a bad light". Seattle Post Intelligencer. 2004-01-10. Archived from the original on 2021-03-05. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  38. ^ Walsh, Caspar. The 10 best prison films Archived 2016-09-27 at the Wayback Machine. The Observer. May 30, 2010
  39. ^ "'Midnight Express' team to watch film with Turkish prisoners". Hürriyet Daily News. 2010-05-20. Archived from the original on 2021-05-05. Retrieved 2010-07-31.

External links

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