It is often said that the punishment should fit the crime. As a concept, that makes total and complete sense. The realities of the statement however don't always quite match up. One person's idea of the correct punishment for a crime isn't necessarily another's; one nation's concept is sometimes radically different from another's. It can all depend on the populace, the time period, the manner in which the law was broken, and an infinite number of other factors. Consequently, it can be incredibly difficult for people in one part of the world to properly assess punishments handed out in another part of the world.
The 1978 film Midnight Express is a brilliant movie, well told, well acted, well shot, and absolutely riveting. Where the film utterly fails is that it makes no attempt at understanding the country, prisons, and laws the film rails against.
Based on a true story, the Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) directed film follows Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, Chariots of Fire) as he attempts to smuggle two kilograms of hashish out of Turkey in 1970. Hayes unfortunately timed his attempt to just follow some airplane hijackings and tough talk from Richard Nixon. It led to the airport being on high alert and Hayes being caught.
After serving the vast majority of his initial four year and two month sentence, a prosecutorial appeal changes his sentence to 30 years. For Hayes, who has already suffered the indignity of life in a Turkish prison for almost four years, the new sentence is too much to take, and he quickly finds his prison life spiraling out of control. The pain and disbelief and hope Davis exhibits as Hayes throughout the film is one of the factors that really make the piece work. The performance is an outstanding one and earned Davis a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Male.
Davis' costars are equally brilliant, with Irene Miracle (Billy's girlfriend, Susan) also earning a Golden Globe (Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Female), and John Hurt, who plays a fellow inmate, a Golden Globe win and an Oscar Nomination (supporting actor, both).
Midnight Express needs to be looked at less like an expose on Turkey in general and the Turkish prison system (unquestionably not a great one) in particular, and more like one's mans view of it. The film attempts to put forward this idea by doing things like never utilizing subtitles when Turkish is spoken, but is not wholly successful at it. The film only ever shows a small segment of the Turkish population, but that segment is seen in an almost entirely negative light. As discussed in one of the behind the scenes featurettes, this was a critique made against the film upon its initial release and it is one that is still valid today. The story is just one man's story, but the view it presents of Turkey and the Turkish, even at the airport where Hayes was trying to do something very illegal, is a damaging one.
In an attempt to make the audience remain wholeheartedly on the side of Hayes, the illegality of Hayes' actions are downplayed. We may not agree with Turkey's system of justice – and I don't think anyone would approve of the prison system as it is depicted – but Hayes' main upset in the movie comes from the fact that extra years are added to his sentence due to the reinstatement of a smuggling charge… and Hayes was smuggling. He was being made an example of by the Turkish criminal justice system, and we do the same thing in the States on a regular basis (Bernie Madoff getting 150 years, for instance). That doesn't make the actions of the jailers – if true – right, but the film doesn't ever really redeem Hayes for his actions, they are just glossed over.
The Blu-ray release of Midnight Express is solid if unspectacular. Most of the film looks very good, delivering a dark, morose, feel to a dark, morose, film. There is a minimal amount of grain, and good detail in the visuals. More than one scene however has a lot more grain and a lot less detail, it is as though those scenes came from a different, less good, print of the film (or simply weren't corrected in the same manner as the rest of the film). The sound in the film is also not without problem; while it tends to be clear, the range of the volume is just too great at times, with quiet scenes requiring the sound turned up and loud ones requiring it turned down.