Sunday, October 06, 2013

Taking the Midnight Express

My memory is that there were a lot of gritty movies coming out in 1978.

"The Deer Hunter" came out that year; so did "Coming Home," each in its own way an indictment of the Vietnam experience.

And "Midnight Express" was released in 1978. It had to be one of the grittiest of them all.

"Midnight Express" wasn't about Vietnam. It was about a young American (Brad Davis) who was caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey on this day in 1970 and ended up doing hard time in a Turkish prison.

The movie got its name from the prison slang expression for an escape attempt.

And there was plenty from which an inmate might want to escape — disease, sadistic prison guards, a justice system that was biased against Americans and allowed prosecutors to appeal acquittals or what they saw as insufficient sentences.

It was a nightmare, and director Alan Parker did a great job of painting a grim picture for the audience.

There were moments in "Midnight Express" that would make anyone cringe. It was a brilliant examination of human frailties and shortcomings and how they were exploited and abused by those in power.

Those on the receiving end often snapped, and Davis' character did snap a couple of times.

On one such occasion, his girlfriend (Irene Miracle) — with whom he was traveling when he was busted in the movie — came to see him a few years after his incarceration, and she was shocked by what she saw.

She brought a photo album with her. Money was inside the photo album, and, for the benefit of anyone who might be listening to their conversation, she told him there were pictures inside of his old friend "Mr. Franklin from the bank," and she encouraged him to escape as soon as possible, whenever he saw an opportunity.

And he did.

The story seemed entirely plausible — and parts of it were legitimate — but it exaggerated some things to achieve a desired effect.

Big–screen audiences may have had their first real look at Davis in "Midnight Express," but I knew him from a couple of earlier TV productions — the TV movie "Sybil" and the smash hit mini–series "Roots."

I have always felt that Davis' life was a tragic one, more tragic even than many of the roles he played, and the role of Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express" was a tragic one in many ways.

He was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid–1980s and died of assisted suicide in 1991.