The failure of "Valentino" put a crimp in the activity of Ken Russell, but movie freaks addicted to fevered kitsch may have a new champion in Alan Parker. Unless my swollen, blood-spattered eyes deceived me during the stupefying unreeling of "Midnight Express," Parker threatens to become the new Russell.
Now at area theaters, "Midnight Express" is an outrageously sensationalic movie version of a non-fiction cautionary tale, Billy Hays' account of his imprisonment in Turkey after being convicted for drug smuggling. While a college student in 1970, Hays traipsed off to Turkey to score some hashish, but blundered into a frisk at Istanbul Airport that exposed the two kilos of hash he had taped to his body.
Hays spent five years in Turkish penal institutions before resolving to escape ("midnight express" was prison argot for an escape attempt) and succeeding after transfer to a minimum-security facility on an island in the Sea of Marmara. The customary shocks and humiliations of arrest, conviction and incarceration were intensified in his case by culture shock. A drug-culture variant on the traditional American innocent abroad, Hays found himself at the mercy of an alien legal and penal system, whose methods of operation confused, frightened and embittered him.
The book is a pedestrian but plausible chronicle, and Hays' expressions of outrage at what he considered Turkish corruption and brutality are complicated by an awareness of his own inexcusable folly and ignorance. Parker has upset the book's delicate sense of balance. He uses Hays' dilemma as a springboard for sensationalism, especially sustained depictions of brutality and hysteria.
The film is loaded with show-stopping fabrications: Brad Davis as Hays expressing obscene contempt for Turkish justice before a trial court, throttling a prison trusty and then biting and spitting out the man's tongue, killing a sadistic head guard before making his escape. If you can't get in the gratuitous spirit of such episodes, this movie is going to seem pictorially revolting and socially irresponsibly in the extreme.
Hays, who has been doing promotional appearances on behalf of the film, professes to be resigned to Parker's brainstorms on the grounds that they depict violent acts of reprisal that crossed his own mind. He objected only to alteration: Parker's hilarious cop-out at the end of a sequence that appears to be building up to a homosexual tryst between Davis and a fellow inmate played by Norbert Weisser. (In his book Hays acknowledged a fleeting homosexual affair.)
The effect of the cop-out is even funnier than the scene in "Love and Death" where Woody Allen tried to embrace Diane Keaton on their wedding night and she snarled, "Not here!"
Given Parker's shameless perspective, Hays' story never evolves. It's too vicious to become an adventure yarn in the tradition of "The Count of Monte Cristo" or "Papillon," an expose in the tradition of "I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," or an exemplary character study about a young man finding his manhood in adverse conditions.
The story might also be interpreted as an ironic study of American cultural chauvinism during the period of the Vietnam War. Parker elects to portray Billy Hays as a cherubic victim of Turkish barbarity, Brad Davis' performance is a veritable encyclopedia of mannerisms from James Dean and Montgomery Clift, but there's never a compelling reason for sympathizing with the callow boy he appears to be from start to finish.
Where does Parker's fanatical animus against the Turks originate? Does he hold a grudge because of Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps? Shot on Malta and in Greece, "Midnight Express" has already been banned in Turkey and may cause both Columbia and the Motion Picture Association a good deal of embarrassment. At the very least, Columbia might drop the boastful epilogue, in which the filmmakers take credit for inspiring a prisoner-exchange treaty between Turkey and the United States that resulted from several years of diplomatic negotiation. "Midnight Express" sets a new standard in shamelessness.