Midnight Express (1978)

R | 120 mins | Drama | 8 October 1978

Director:

Alan Parker

Writer:

Oliver Stone

Editor:

Gerry Hambling

Production Designer:

Geoffrey Kirkland

Production Company:

Casablanca Filmworks
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HISTORY

       On 10 Aug 1977, Var announced that Columbia Pictures was planning a film adaptation of Billy Hayes and William Hoffer’s 1977 best-selling book about Hayes’s imprisonment in a Turkish jail for alleged drug smuggling, Midnight Express. A 16 Nov 1977 Var brief reported that film rights were purchased for $125,000, and the picture was budgeted at $2.75 million. A 19 Mar 1979 Forbes news item, which stated that the final production cost was approximately $2.6 million, noted that executive producer, Peter Gruber, co-owner and board chairman of Casablanca Filmworks, was Columbia Pictures’ former executive vice president of worldwide production; Gruber brought the project to Columbia in return for 25% of its net gross. Screenwriter Oliver Stone was reportedly paid $75,000 for the adaptation, while director Alan Parker earned $150,000, as well as a 5% share in the film’s profits. A 28 Oct 1979 LAT article stated that many of the principal filmmakers agreed to defer their salaries, and accepted “points,” or shares in gross film rentals. Approximately $1.5 million in financing was secured through foreign organizations looking to shelter income from taxes. In addition, Gruber and Columbia agreed to insure the project with “cross-collateralization,” where Gruber’s profits on The Deep (1977, see entry) were used to offset any potential losses on Midnight Express.
       Billy Hayes stated in a 14 Nov 1978 Us article that the film deviated from his true story, taking liberties to depict the Turkish as “Naziesque, sadists, and sodomizers all” by adding gory fictional scenes. He objected to the picture’s exclusion of his ... More Less

       On 10 Aug 1977, Var announced that Columbia Pictures was planning a film adaptation of Billy Hayes and William Hoffer’s 1977 best-selling book about Hayes’s imprisonment in a Turkish jail for alleged drug smuggling, Midnight Express. A 16 Nov 1977 Var brief reported that film rights were purchased for $125,000, and the picture was budgeted at $2.75 million. A 19 Mar 1979 Forbes news item, which stated that the final production cost was approximately $2.6 million, noted that executive producer, Peter Gruber, co-owner and board chairman of Casablanca Filmworks, was Columbia Pictures’ former executive vice president of worldwide production; Gruber brought the project to Columbia in return for 25% of its net gross. Screenwriter Oliver Stone was reportedly paid $75,000 for the adaptation, while director Alan Parker earned $150,000, as well as a 5% share in the film’s profits. A 28 Oct 1979 LAT article stated that many of the principal filmmakers agreed to defer their salaries, and accepted “points,” or shares in gross film rentals. Approximately $1.5 million in financing was secured through foreign organizations looking to shelter income from taxes. In addition, Gruber and Columbia agreed to insure the project with “cross-collateralization,” where Gruber’s profits on The Deep (1977, see entry) were used to offset any potential losses on Midnight Express.
       Billy Hayes stated in a 14 Nov 1978 Us article that the film deviated from his true story, taking liberties to depict the Turkish as “Naziesque, sadists, and sodomizers all” by adding gory fictional scenes. He objected to the picture’s exclusion of his love affair with a fellow inmate, a Swedish man named “Erich.” Hayes reported that he wrote Midnight Express to repay his father for taking out a second mortgage on the family home, raising $30,000 for his son’s legal expenses.
       The 28 Oct 1979 LAT reported that actor Richard Gere was initially cast in the role of Billy Hayes, but he left the project five weeks before the start date.
       According to a 14 Sep 1977 Var news item, principal photography began 12 Sep 1977 in Malta, with plans to relocate to Greece. Production notes in AMPAS library files stated that the 17th-century Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, Malta, stood in for the location of Sağmalcılar Prison, as filming in Turkey was not permitted. Set construction at Fort Saint Elmo began mid-Jul 1977 and was completed for $25,000, despite heat waves that reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Prison visiting room scenes were filmed at nearby Knight’s Hall, a hospital built in 1574. The facility also housed a set for the asylum sequences. St. Dominic’s Priory in Rabat, Malta, provided the location for Billy Hayes’s trial scenes. A Columbia Pictures press release noted that filming was still underway as of 2 Oct 1977, as Billy Hayes visited the prison set that day, marking the two-year anniversary of his 1975 escape from Turkey.
       The film screened at the May 1978 Cannes Film Festival to general acclaim, but three months later, the picture stimulated controversy when human rights organization Amnesty International declined to premiere the film in London, England, as a fundraiser, fearing that Turkey would be offended. On 1 Sep 1978, HR stated that one scene “in which the main character abuses Turkey and Turks” was removed from the picture in Holland due to protests. Several weeks later, the 26 Sep 1978 Var reported that Israel had recently banned the film, and the 27 Sep 1978 LAT noted that Turkish nationals in the Netherlands picketed the picture and “unsuccessfully sought an injunction” to prohibit screenings. However, producer David Puttnam credited Columbia for standing by Midnight Express and refusing to revise its original cut.
       Two months after the film’s highly successful domestic release in Oct 1978, the 15-21 Dec 1978 LA Weekly announced that the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles, CA, had been mounting a propaganda campaign against Midnight Express, and the filmmakers met with Turkish officials at the United Nations in New York City. According to LA Weekly, Turkey’s representatives requested that a ten-minute tourism advertisement be featured at the end of each screening, and demanded that Columbia and Casablanca finance television crews to film inside actual Turkish prisons to show that conditions were not as they appeared in Midnight Express.
       By 7 Feb 1979, Var reported that Turkey was developing a new strategy to debunk Midnight Express, hiring Caner Film Productions to make a follow-up film called Midday Express, to provide an alternate account of Turkish prison life. The release of Midday Express cannot be verified.
       One year after opening, Midnight Express had grossed over $30 million, including $16 million from domestic audiences and $14 million from abroad, according to the 28 Oct 1979 LAT article. However, a 25 Jul 1979 financial statement issued by Columbia stated that the picture retained a $300,000 deficit. At that time, neither Gruber nor Parker had received their share of the profits, despite the film’s box-office success. In a follow-up 4 Nov 1979 LAT article, Columbia explained that only $24.4 million of the $30 million gross had materialized, as rental fees had not been paid, and the studio had already subtracted $8 million for distribution. Columbia board chairman Leo Jaffe argued that the film ultimately cost $3.2 million due to “overhead” expenses such as executives’ salaries, taxes, transportation, deferments, and interest charges. The 4 Nov 1979 LAT published a letter from Gruber, stating that he was indeed paid for Midnight Express. Gruber defended his good relationship with Columbia.
       In 2004, Oliver Stone travelled to Turkey, issuing a much-publicized apology for Midnight Express, as noted in a 21 Dec 2004 The Times (London) article. However, Alan Parker regarded the repentance as a publicity stunt, as Stone was in the throes of promoting his latest writing and directorial effort, Alexander (2004, see entry). The film had recently provoked controversy in Greece because it portrayed Alexander the Great as bisexual. Parker also noted that Stone was not an active member of the Midnight Express production, so he was in no position to apologize for the final film. Stone’s apology also coincided with the European Union’s debate over allowing Turkey admission to the alliance. The Winter 2008 edition of Hollywood Life stated that Billy Hayes returned to Turkey in 2007, also making a public statement of regret for the film’s dramatization of prison violence. The picture’s success reportedly resulted in a negative impact on Turkish tourism “for decades.”
       Midnight Express was nominated for four Academy Awards in the following categories: Actor in a Supporting Role (John Hurt), Directing, Film Editing, and Best Picture. It was the recipient of two Academy Awards for Music (Original Score) and Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium), marking Oliver Stone’s first nomination and award as a screenwriter.

      The narrative begins with an introductory title: “The following is based on a true story. It began October 6, 1970 in Istanbul, Turkey.” It concludes with: “On the night of October 4, 1975 Billy Hayes successfully crossed the border to Greece. He arrived home at Kennedy Airport 3 weeks later.” End credits, which feature still photographs of “Billy Hayes,” performed by actor Brad Davis, reuniting with his family, provide the following location information: “Made entirely on location in Malta and recorded at EMI Studios, Borehamwood by Columbia Pictures Corporation Limited 19/23 Wells Street, London, W.I. England.”
More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Forbes
19 Mar 1979.
---
Hollywood Life
Winter 2008.
---
Hollywood Reporter
18 May 1978
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
1 Sep 1978.
---
LA Weekly
15-21 Dec 1978.
---
Los Angeles Times
27 Sep 1978
Section F, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times
25 Oct 1978
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
28 Oct 1979
Calendar, p. 1, 32, 34.
Los Angeles Times
4 Nov 1979
Section M, p. 3.
New York Times
8 Oct 1978.
---
The Times (London)
21 Dec 2004.
---
Us
14 Nov 1978
p. 75.
Variety
10 Aug 1977.
---
Variety
14 Sep 1977.
---
Variety
16 Nov 1977.
---
Variety
24 May 1978
p. 27.
Variety
31 Aug 1978.
---
Variety
26 Sep 1978.
---
Variety
7 Feb 1979.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
An Alan Parker film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
3d asst dir
Unit mgr
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Lighting cam
Cam op
Stills photog
Follow focus
Clapper loader
Cam grip
Rigger
Elec
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dept asst
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Const mgr
Prop buyer
Prop master
Dressing props
Stand by props
Stand by props
Stand by carpenter
Stand by painter
Stand by plasterer
Stage hand
COSTUMES
Cost des
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Sd cam
Dubbing ed
Dubbing mixer
MAKEUP
Make up
Hairdressing
Makeup
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Continuity
Casting, U.S.A.
Casting, England
Prod accountant
Asst accountant
Prod secy
Prods' asst
Prods' asst
STAND INS
Fight arr
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book Midnight Express by William Hayes with William Hoffer (New York, 1977).
SONGS
"Istanbul Blues," written by David Dean Castle and William James Hayes.
DETAILS
Release Date:
8 October 1978
Premiere Information:
New York opening: week of 8 October 1978
Los Angeles opening: 27 October 1978
Production Date:
began 12 September 1977 in Malta
Copyright Claimant:
Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Copyright Date:
6 November 1978
Copyright Number:
PA17504
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
120
MPAA Rating:
R
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25754
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

On 6 October 1970, in Istanbul, Turkey, tourist Billy Hayes wraps his body with bricks of hashish, hoping to smuggle the drugs back to the U.S. Despite his nerves, Billy passes through security and reunites with his girl friend, Susan. As they board the airplane, however, Billy is searched and arrested. During his interrogation, an American named Tex advises Billy to cooperate with the Turkish police, and Billy agrees to identify his hashish connection in an Istanbul marketplace. There, Billy tries to run away, but is captured at gunpoint by Tex. In prison, Billy writes an apologetic letter to his parents and is shocked by his squalid cell. That night, Billy momentarily leaves the cell to retrieve a blanket, and is punished with a brutal beating. He later befriends two fellow prisoners, an American named Jimmy Booth and a Swede named Erich. They lead him through the bustling prison yard and warn him against an informant named Rifki. Following Erich’s advice, Billy speaks to a heroin-addicted Englishman named Max, who has been in prison for seven years. Max warns that all Turkish lawyers are corrupt and tells Billy his only hope for freedom is the “Midnight Express,” prison slang for “escape.” In time, Billy is reunited with his father, who vows to help his son. Mr. Hayes introduces Billy to U.S. consul Stanley Daniels, and a Turkish lawyer named Yesil. At the trial, Billy is sentenced to four years, but Yesil remains positive. He reveals that the prosecutor accused Billy of smuggling, a crime that warrants life in prison. Billy and his father are ... +


On 6 October 1970, in Istanbul, Turkey, tourist Billy Hayes wraps his body with bricks of hashish, hoping to smuggle the drugs back to the U.S. Despite his nerves, Billy passes through security and reunites with his girl friend, Susan. As they board the airplane, however, Billy is searched and arrested. During his interrogation, an American named Tex advises Billy to cooperate with the Turkish police, and Billy agrees to identify his hashish connection in an Istanbul marketplace. There, Billy tries to run away, but is captured at gunpoint by Tex. In prison, Billy writes an apologetic letter to his parents and is shocked by his squalid cell. That night, Billy momentarily leaves the cell to retrieve a blanket, and is punished with a brutal beating. He later befriends two fellow prisoners, an American named Jimmy Booth and a Swede named Erich. They lead him through the bustling prison yard and warn him against an informant named Rifki. Following Erich’s advice, Billy speaks to a heroin-addicted Englishman named Max, who has been in prison for seven years. Max warns that all Turkish lawyers are corrupt and tells Billy his only hope for freedom is the “Midnight Express,” prison slang for “escape.” In time, Billy is reunited with his father, who vows to help his son. Mr. Hayes introduces Billy to U.S. consul Stanley Daniels, and a Turkish lawyer named Yesil. At the trial, Billy is sentenced to four years, but Yesil remains positive. He reveals that the prosecutor accused Billy of smuggling, a crime that warrants life in prison. Billy and his father are devastated, and bid each other a tearful farewell. In a letter to his girl friend, Billy details his loneliness and the violence of prison life. In April 1972, Billy again meets with Yesil, who reports that the boy’s official sentence is still pending. Sometime later, Jimmy obtains prison blueprints and the friends strategize an escape. Jimmy believes there is a shaft behind the shower wall, and that will lead them to underground tunnels. Jimmy begs Billy and Max to help him remove stones from the wall, but they are afraid of getting caught and decline. Jimmy then attempts his own escape on the prison roof, but he is caught, tortured, and sent to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, Billy and Erich practice yoga and fall in love, but Billy rejects his friend’s sexual advances, and Erich is released. In time, Jimmy returns to the prison block and devises a new escape plan, revealing that there is only one guard in the sanitarium. With only fifty-three days left in his prison term, Billy learns from consul Stanley Daniels that he will have to return to court. His initial verdict was rejected, and a life sentence is now pending. Daniels warns that Turkish officials are eager to make an example of him. In court, Billy appeals for his freedom, and claims that the integrity of any society is based on its sense of justice, and capacity for mercy. Losing composure, Billy exclaims that Turkey is a nation of pigs, and is sent back to prison for an additional thirty years. With nothing to lose, Billy helps Max and Jimmy search for a shaft behind the shower walls. As the informant, Rifki, sleeps, the men chisel through the rocks to create an opening. Jimmy wants to leave right away, but Billy argues they are unprepared. The following evening, the three friends climb through the shaft and wade through the flooded tunnels only to discover the path blocked. They return to the cell, but Rifki finds their excavation and reports the attempted escape. As Jimmy is singled out as the culprit and dragged away, Max threatens to kill Rifki. However, Billy suggests they steal Rifki’s money, instead, and the informant soon discovers fragments of his cash in a fire pit. Rifki takes revenge, blaming Max for smuggling hashish into the prison, and the Englishman is taken away for punishment. Unleashing his rage, Billy attacks Rifki and bites out his tongue. As a result, Billy is dragged to Section 13, a ward for the criminally insane, where Max has also been relocated. Seven months later, in January 1975, Billy receives an unexpected visit from his girl friend, Susan. She reports that the Hayes family and the U.S. government are fighting for Billy’s freedom, but he is more interested in seeing her naked breasts and masturbates. As the tearful couple declares their love for each other, Susan presents Billy with a family photograph album. Speaking in code, she reveals that the back cover of the album contains a “picture” of the banker, “Mr. Franklin,” who is now in Greece; she says the man has “bought a ticket.” As visiting time ends, Susan warns Billy that he will die if he does not escape. Back in the ward, Billy hides in the latrine and finds a stack of $100 bills in the album. He awakens the semi-conscious Max, bids his friend farewell, and vows to help him escape at a later date. Billy attempts to bribe the warden, Hamidou, with a $100 bill, but he returns Billy to the sanitarium for a beating. When Hamidou drops his pants to rape Billy, the boy shoves his nemesis against the wall, and Hamidou’s head is impaled on a wooden rod. Billy takes Hamidou’s gun, but is unable to fire. He disguises himself in uniform, sneaks through the shadows, and steps outside the prison door to freedom. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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