Two nights ago while my husband was channel surfing he saw that Midnight Express was on TV. “Are they still showing this?" he said. Since it had just started, I said let’s watch! Released in 1978, Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay that Alan Parker directed. It is based on a true story that is no longer in print.
I have always wanted to watch this film, as it has often been so legendary in discussions about Turkey. Not so much in Turkey, but more in the US. If you haven’t seen the movie, the main character tries to smuggle a few kilos of hashish into Istanbul and gets caught. He then goes to prison and the movie is about his time there and his great escape.
I had high expectations of the controversy because I had heard many Turks complain about the huge conspiracy to use this movie to deface Turks in the West. I heard two times as many references from Americans who would advise people to not get in trouble on their travels to Turkey because they did not want to end up in Turkish prison. Enter sarcasm here: Because if you tried to smuggle drugs into any other country in the world you would be welcome with open arms.
Honestly, I find both camps a bit over reactive. I say this without having read the book or knowing much about the real account of what happened to Billy Hayes during his time in prison. I am sure being in prison in a foreign country for smuggling drugs is beyond awful, but I don’t think that the movie intended to say Turks are bad. The Turkish prison guards in the movie were bad, but I do not think that is worth a generalization of an entire country. Prison guards aren’t universally known for their hospitality, regardless of origin.
There were some Turks who said that the cast was intentionally Greek because the Turkish accent was incorrect. I think the issue was that the Turkish characters in the film were all played by actors with names like Paul Smith. They did not know Turkish and just had really bad accents. Even though the languages are different, a Greek accent would have been more convincing.
I am also surprised at the raving reviews this film still continues to get as well as the controversy around it. For example, many things I read on the Internet have noted it as highly accurate and documentary-like. Even though it won several awards, including an Oscar for best screenplay, a few say Oliver Stone’s account is not accurate. It was not clear if they were referring to the adaptation of the book, or their own personal experience in Turkish prison.
In some parts that I am sure were not intended to be comic relief, we laughed out loud. The film is intense and supposed to be about Billy’s pain and suffering, but suddenly two men doing sun salutations naked in prison followed by a Broke Back Mountainesque shower scene changed the tone. This was taken to the next level when Billy’s girlfriend came to visit him and smashed her naked breasts against the divider. How could anyone have taken this so serious?
I was very interested in my Turkish husband's reaction to the film. He had never really watched the whole film - only bits and pieces when it was on TV in the past. Its reputation for depicting Turks in bad light was so strong he never really sat down to watch it from beginning to end. After it finished, he was also left wondering why the big deal?
It caused him to further question the American reaction to the film. When he first went to the US in 1989, he received a lot of “So what about Midnight Express.” He never really knew how to answer that.
What I think the film should be noted for is its great job of creating cultural misunderstanding. There were also many things happening at that time that helped contribute to these conclusions. For example, in the 1970s people did not have as much information as they do now, nor did they travel as much. Such a film probably created some fear of the unknown. The recollection of a Turkish-Greek conflict over Cyprus in the same decade this movie was made – of course Turks would be sensitive to something that they thought made them look bad in the West.
The moral of the story: Don’t do drugs, don’t smuggle drugs. Hollywood production does not equal reality. Do not over react to label a country or take defense as the result of one film.