It was every young, ’70s-era stoner’s nightmare: On the way home from Europe, with a couple of kilos of hash strapped to your stomach, you get busted. Railroaded by corrupt Turkish officials and abandoned by the American consulate, you’re sentenced to 30 years in a dank prison cell, faced with two choices: Die there, while slowly going mad, or execute a daring escape.
Based loosely on the experiences of American Billy Hayes, Midnight Express wasn’t exactly feel-good fare, but when it hit theaters on Oct. 6, 1978, it struck a nerve. Rapt audiences lined up, the press compared star Brad Davis to James Dean, and the Turkish government banned the flick, deeming it racist. Midnight went on to gross $100 million (it cost $2.9 million) and landed six Oscar nominations, winning for Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay — which was penned by a then-unknown scribe named Oliver Stone.
”Stone spent months pecking away in the back of my office,” remembers director Alan Parker. ”Honestly, we didn’t like him — he’s not the most wonderful human being — but the screenplay was fantastic.” Needless to say, with its depiction of virtually every Turk as evil, nasty, or corrupt, the adaptation was filmed in Malta, at a dilapidated prison. The shoot lasted a brutal 53 days, during which time John Hurt, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of a drug-addicted inmate, didn’t bathe once. ”We all went a bit loony,” laughs Parker.
But as a result, Midnight became a global hit, catapulting Stone and Parker onto Hollywood’s radar (though Parker notes that they’ve barely spoken since) and inspiring everything from this summer’s Brokedown Palace and 1998’s Return to Paradise to the hilarious Turkish prison riff in Airplane!
Davis, however, was never able to capitalize on the film’s success. After it opened, he struggled with drug addiction and never landed such a high-profile role again. In her 1997 book After Midnight, his widow, Susan Bluestein Davis, detailed the events leading up to his death from AIDS in 1991.
In the Turkish community, raw feelings linger — as evidenced by the heat HBO Plus took for airing Midnight Express less than a week after Turkey’s recent earthquake. In response to such criticism, Parker and Stone have distanced themselves from the film’s politics: Stone once said that complaints about racism were ”legitimate,” and Parker has expressed regret about its stain on the country. Indeed, to this day, the phrase ”Turkish prison” has become a euphemism for ”hellish ordeal.”
”They do polls asking why people don’t want Turkey in the European Union — and [a pretty prevalent reason] is always Midnight Express,” says Parker. ”I feel terrible.”