the big crime
by Douglas Messerli
Oliver Stone (screenplay, based on the book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer), Alan Parker (director) Midnight Express / 1978
Alan Parker’s 1978 prison film Midnight Express is not an LGBTQ movie in the least, but it is of interest within this context precisely for what is missing in the film. If there was ever a work of cinema that, despite its many homoerotic images, was created within the umbrella of violent xenophobia and homophobia it is this film.
Originally, Midnight Express was intended to be a prison escape vehicle for actor Richard Gere. And it might well have been an exciting one given the true story by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer upon which it was based, in which the imprisoned Hayes, after having been moved to Imrali Island prison, steals a rowboat which he rowed approximately 17 minutes through a tempestuous storm across the Sea of Marmara before hiking by foot and catching a bus to Istanbul, before swimming across the Martiza River to Greek freedom.
It’s truly odd that the film creates a possible fictional homosexual incident at film’s end, while utterly refusing to depict the actual gay relationship between Hayes and his fellow prisoner, the young Swedish man Erich (Norbert Weisser) that perhaps helped him retrain his sanity throughout much of his prison stay. But I’ll return to this issue later.
It is, in fact, fascinating for how Stone and others involved in this film chose to exclude so much of the truly revelatory events of Hayes horrific Turkish adventure to replace them with violent, xenophobic, and homophobic incidents. You might almost say that the filmmakers went out of their way to create of hate film out of what might been a truly inspirational and spiritually uplifting LGBTQ-friendly adventure saga, even if personally I’m far more interested in the internal prison scenes than in any portrayal of escape the movie might have depicted.
But let us start from beginning. In the film, the young, willfully naïve American student Billy Hayes, traveling with his girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle) on holiday in Istanbul, Turkey in 1970, straps 2 kilograms of hashish bricks to his chest, without telling Susan. Despite his quite evident nervousness and, at one point, his determination to almost back out on his smuggling intentions, he makes it through the terminal check. But this was a time in Turkey of several outside terrorist threats and airplane bombings, and as they approach the actual plane, he is met with another check as they board the plane on the tarmac. Patted down by guards, he is immediately arrested and detained.
Despite Billy’s understandable fears as
he undergoes further body and luggage checks, Parker infuses the events with a somewhat
comic putdown of Turkish forces as Billy is interrogated again
I’ve seen such incidents played out in other authoritative regimes in the Soviet Russia (where I successfully smuggled out unapproved art and black market items), Poland, and East Germany, but do we really need such Keystone Kop antics at the very moment that our young “hero” is most terrified about what has befallen him? When they all gather round for a photo-op to advertise Turkish efforts to crack down on drug smuggling, even the actor doesn’t seem to know how to behave as he too breaks out in a silly grin. It appears the director perceived the inappropriateness in his mockery at that moment of Turkish police.
Soon after, Hayes is whisked away by a supposed, English-speaking ally, whom he nicknames "Tex” (Bo Hopkins) who asks him to point out the cabbie who sold him the stuff; but after attempting and failing at a fairly exciting early escape, Billy discovers what he will relearn again and again throughout the narrative: he can trust no one. The English-speaking figure who may be connected to the consul is, in fact, a Turkish liaison, who is just as ready to kill the kid as see to help him get a lesser sentence. And we realize at that moment, as does Billy, that his situation is far more serious than he previously might have imagined.
But before we proceed to the internecine battles and complexities of the Turkish justice system, let us back up for a moment and reconsider the truth as expressed in the book upon which this film is based.
First of all Billy Hayes was not some naïve kid who had, almost on a lark, determined to take home some hashish to sell only to his best friends. In fact, Hayes had made three previous successful smuggling trips before the one in which he was caught in 1970, and he was not traveling with his girlfriend at the time. He was, however, obviously naïve about what being caught might represent. Even today is a strong advocate of drug legalization. As Hayes himself expresses it: “I was smuggling drugs. I'm from the '60s, I don't think people should be arrested for it. Don't put people in jail—teach your kids about it.”
You can hardly blame Stone for not incorporating this into his script, however, since that fact had not been included in the Hayes-Hoffer book or was mentioned by Hayes during the filming, since, as he expressed it in a later Variety interview, “My lawyer informed me I would be opening myself up to arrest in the U.S. by admitting prior smuggling trips. We were also concerned that the Turkish government would ask for my extradition, so it was clear to us I needed to protect myself.” In fact, Stone has claimed on at least one occasion that had he known the truth he would not have signed on to write the script.
As we can easily perceive, moreover, there are a great many benefits to representing Billy as a first-time innocent since it makes his imprisonment and the extreme punishment doled out by the Turkish justice system seem absurd, while positioning the character as a slightly delinquent 23-year-old with whom we can empathize and about whom we can feel a great deal of sympathy. Certainly, it justifies his later furious outbursts when, after having served three years as a basically model prisoner, his punishment is suddenly extended to life.
It might have been fascinating, however, to see what might happen in a film in which the handsome and likeable Billy had actually smuggled out hashish (known in the US mostly as cannabis and marijuana) several times. Would the audience of the day immediately have turned upon him, or even felt that the outrageous sentences he received were justified? Or might we have begun to become a bit enlightened on the ridiculousness of arresting and imprisoning men and women for possession and use of a drug which today is increasingly recognized as relatively mild and, in numerous cases, even beneficial in helping certain medical conditions. It truly might have been fascinating if Stone had further explored the ideas which Billy expresses in the first part of his final words to the judge after he has been re-sentenced to life imprisonment—a sentence rendered, in part, because of the Turkish attempts to show the world, particularly with pressure from the US, that they were serious about outlawing drugs—in the context of knowing about that character’s earlier behavior. Today the character’s beginning argument in that scene—at a time when many states and nations have reconsidered and totally altered their attitudes toward cannabis—resonates with new meaning:
When I’m finished you’ll sentence me for my crime. So let me ask
you now. What is a crime? What is punishment? It seems to vary
from time to time, from place to place. What’s legal today is suddenly
illegal tomorrow because some society says it’s so. And what was
illegal yesterday is legal because everybody is doing it, and you can’t
put everybody in jail. I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m just
saying that’s the way it is.
I’ve spent three and a half years of my life in your prison, and I
think I’ve paid for my error. And if it’s your decision today to
sentence me to more years then I’m....
Unfortunately, Stone’s script suddenly goes berserk, launching a diatribe through is character of the Turkish people in general:
I’ve been playing it cool. And I’ve been good. And now I’m
damn tired of being good. Because you people gave me the belief
that I had 53 days left. You hung 53 days in front of my face and then
you just took those days away. ...The concept of a society is based
on the quality of that mercy, its sense of fair play. its sense of justice.
But I guess that’s asking a bear to shit in a toilet. For a nation of pigs
it sure is funny you don’t eat them. Jesus Christ forgave the bastards,
but I can’t. I hate. I hate you, I hate your nation, and I hate your
people. I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs. You’re
a pig. You’re all pigs.
When you have a “hero” whose qualifications for that role might seem a little bit tainted, you need, evidently Stone and Parker feel, to paint all the others around him as horrific monsters. As critic David Denby correctly argued, Midnight Express is “merely anti-Turkish, and hardly a defense of prisoners’ rights or a protest against prison conditions.” In her book Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place writer 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." In her New Yorker review Pauline Kael quite sarcastically observed: "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.)"
After the release of this film, Turkish tourism fell off nearly 95%, making Hayes one of the most hated people in modern Turkish history.
Hayes has repeatedly said that not only did he not curse out the judge who sent down the life-time sentence, but that, outside of his experiences in Sagmalcilar jail, he loved Turkey and its people; and after the movie he put himself in danger by returning to Turkey to proclaim his admiration of the country and its people.
In the film, the character’s now justified anger results in his attacking his fellow Turkish inmate who, in revealing their attempts to escape through the catacombs below, caused the arrestment and torture of his friend, Jimmy (Randy Quaid), who had already lost a testicle due to a previous beating. In the movie Billy goes on a rampage, insanely pulling out a station of sinks in order to beat and bite off the tongue of the hated snitch, Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli)—all which land him in the criminally insane ward from which he finally escapes.
But in truth. nothing like that ever happened. He did have a temporary mental breakdown and was locked away for a while in the prison sanitorium, but no violence was involved he claims. And basically he was treated well in the prison, spending most of his time in utter boredom. Even the seemingly brutal foot-beating he received on his first day in prison after stealing a blanket, he recalls, was “an example of falaka, a light beating, and there was no sex attack. They cane your feet and to outsiders it seems like a horrible thing but it’s not that bad. At the time, I thought it was killing me, but I soon discovered that it wasn't a bad beating. Later on, I discovered what a bad beating was—they would break bones if they thought you had hash or information they wanted.”
Clearly, the years have softened Hayes’ perspective of his prison life, although it still sounds rather horrific.
Yet the violence and xenophobic hatred of the film was apparently created in the studio, not in the bowels of Sagmalcilar. By this time, however, the director and his writer had invested so much love into their central figure that they were nearly desperate to show his as suffering near Christ-like figure.
Perhaps the very best decision Parker made was to cast Brad Davis in the part of Billy. Davis, a bisexual who later died of a suicide as he neared the last stages of AIDS in 1991, was so extremely photogenic that cinematographer Michael Seresin and Parker can hardly keep their hand-held camera off of him. When they are not showing the ballooned-headed faces of rotund Turks who all look like they were painted by the Columbian artist Fernando Botero, Davis’ sculpted face appears at the center of nearly every group frame, his hairy pectorals accentuated whenever possible, and his rear fully displayed when permissible.
If someone told me that British director Parker, who was married twice to women and fathered five children, was secretly gay and had the hots for Davis, I wouldn’t bat an eye in surprise. Clearly, Rainer Werner Fassbinder saw Davis as the perfect gay Genet figure for his last film, Querelle, his camera picking out the same body parts while allowing his actor to use them.
The trouble of focusing on Davis’ beauty
in Midnight Express is that, for the most part, it was not “permissible.”
Columbia studio head Daniel Melnick proclaimed that there would be no sexual
Fortunately, the scene remains, but instead of continuing with the expected moment of sexual release, Billy turns away, vaguely shaking his head in the negative. That small gesture says almost everything about this film, which rejects not only the truth of the actual events—in Hayes’ book he does not shake his head but becomes Erich’s lover—but with the way this film rejected all the important truths it might have explored instead of the violence and hatred upon which it is centered: the need to question the very reasons for imprisonment, the important of challenging racial hatreds, and the necessity of maintaining personal identity and the expression of sexuality in order to survive. Even the failed prison movie of 1971, Fortune and Men’s Eyes handles these concerns better, and as early as 1928 Sex in Chains had very well expressed the love that develops between male prisoners. And finally, one must ask if in court he claims to have been fucking all Turkey’s sons and daughters, when and how did this ever occur? Even Stone’s writing seems to be telling a lie.
By 1978, moreover, in a decade that had seen major works of LGBTQ cinema by the likes of Fassbinder, Luchino Visconti, Rosa von Praunheim, Sidney Lumet, Lino Brocka, Lasse Nielsen, Derek Jarman, Ron Peck, Wolfgang Petersen, and others, to say nothing of Andy Warhol of a decade earlier there was no longer any excuse to refuse to express homosexual relationships on film, especially in prison. Midnight Express appeared, it is important to remember, a full 8 years after Stonewall. Americans should no longer have had to been told only half-truths of such important stories.
The irony of Hayes’ statement as expressed in the film itself might easily be applied to the blinkers put on this movie by its writer, director, and studio head: “Homosexuality...is a big crime here, but most of them do it every chance they get.” The hypocrisy of that observation was not simply about the Turks, it turns out, but about the US filmmakers who refused to show what they allowed their character to put into language.
*Perhaps this passing mention of David Lean’s great 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia might provide me the opportunity to mention the LGBTQ aspects of Lean’s movie without having to devote an entire essay to a work that is centered on so very much more than its carefully tamped-down expression of T. S. Lawrence’s gay activity. Let me just observe here that very early on in the film it is suggested that Lawrence is a bit into S & M given his tests of his hand over the flame of a match or candle, and his stoic tolerance of pain is a theme throughout the movie. It is also apparent that his attraction to the Arab culture is very much connected to his attraction to the male chieftains and handsome camel riders, particularly in his intense and rather obvious attraction to Sherif Ali (Omar Sherif). And although nothing is openly stated, it is clear that his hiring of the two young boys Farraj and Daud represents the fact that he is buggering them. Finally, when imprisoned in the Turkish prison, it is clear that the head captain has consistently raped him, thus accounting for this hatred of all things Turkish and his slaughter of the Turkish forces in the desert. When and if I devote an entire essay to the film, accordingly, I shall not have to devote much time to what in Lean’s handling become minor matters—albeit their importance in Lawrence’s characterization.
Los Angeles, May 13, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).