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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Midnight Express


Starring: Brad Davis, Randy Quaid, John Hurt and Irene Miracle
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: 18
Available 13 July 2009

In 1970 Billy Hayes makes the greatest mistake of his life, by trying to smuggle bricks of marijuana, taped to his body, out of Turkey, at a time when the country was on a high terrorist alert. Convicted of smuggling Billy is cast into the hell hole that is Sağmalcılar prison. Exposed to the full brutality of the regime Billy must first survive while he works out a way to escape...

Midnight Express (1978) was directed by Alan Parker (Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Angel Heart (1987) Evita (1996)) from a screenplay by Oliver Stone (Platoon (1986), JFK (1991)). The Screenplay was an adaptation of a true life account by Billy Hayes. The film was a multi BAFTA, Oscar and Golden Globe winner eventually taking fifteen awards and nominated for a further twelve. The film boasted a score by Giorgio Moroder (American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982)).

The film starred Brad Davis as Billy, the naive American caught up in the Turkish prison system - though to be honest it is initially difficult to have any sympathy for a man who straps large blocks of dope to his waist and tries to get on a plane in a country looking for bombers. Although Brad Davis brilliantly depicts Billy’s decent into hell, and the toil that this takes on both his body and mind, there's still a bit of you wondering ‘what the hell were you thinking’. So it shows Davis’s acting chops that we actually do care what happens to his character.

Having been caught with the drugs Billy is taken to see if his can implicate the taxi driver who sold him the drugs, which gives him an opportunity to make a brief bid for freedom. Re-arrested he is tortured, even before he is sentenced. With his incarceration in prison, the regimes brutality takes a heavy toll on Bill’s mind. When Billy thinks that he has gotten away lightly with a four year sentence, the authorities change it to thirty to make an example of him. Realising that if he stays he will die in prison Billy knows he must take the midnight express - a prison term for escape - any way he can.

The two problems I have always had with the film is firstly the portrayal of Billy as lacking any real insight into what he was doing and the likely consequences and the general portrayal of the Turks who are seen as generally inhuman, brutish, corrupt and stupid to the point of being caricatures. I guess when the film was first released Americans held a general distrust of foreigners, which this film would only strengthen. Now, it feels a little embarrassing to see his father and the consulate trying to extend the type of imperialism which America is so often accused of, as well as Billy’s barely disguised racism during his appeal hearing. Even after nearly four years into his sentence he is still acting like an innocent man rather than a drug trafficker.

Taking the politics and overt American chauvinism aside, Midnight Express is still an impressive drama. Apart from Brad Davis, the film benefits from a strong performances by John Hurt as Max - who has already been in prison for seven years, though most of this has been spent in a drug addled haze - and Randy Quaid, who plays the slightly unhinged Jimmy. For all its faults Midnight Express is a well acted drama, Parker is an accomplished director and it shows, though the film takes the odd shot at unnecessary sentimentality. Ultimately it remains difficult to like Billy as a character but you will find yourself caught up with his plight.

Given the age of the film you’re not going to get a pin sharp picture, so it is no surprise that the picture is a little soft. Presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 the film displays a moderate amount of grain commensurate with a film of this age. Generally the colours are strong, though some of the darker scenes are a little hazy with the blacks being less defined.

The disc comes with a good selection of audio options. You can have the original mono mix, its clean and clear but not a shade on the English, French or German Dolby TrueHD 5.1 which adds a lot of ambience to the track and really shows off the score. Subtitles also come in a variety of flavours English; French; German; Arabic; Danish; Dutch Finnish; Hindi; Norwegian; Swedish; Turkish. There are also English, French, German and Dutch subtitles for the film's commentary.

As you would expect from a film that was a multi-award winner there are some good extras. First up is the full length commentary with director Alan Parker, which is worth a listen. This covers the usual topics of story and the film's construction as well as addressing some of the controversy which surround the film's portrayal of Turkey. The other extras take a look at the film from inception to completion. The Producers (25 min, 52 sec) looks at the genesis of the movie, from Billy’s original novel. The Production (24 min, 28 sec) with Alan Parker, David Putman and Oliver Stone about the adaptation of the book for screen and the compromises that had to be made, especially for location work. The team found that as they scouted locations, the Turkish government were on their heels trying to get permissions refused to stop the film's creation. The Finished Film (23 min, 48 sec), wherein we discover some odd things about Brad Davis, with contributions from John Hurt and Alan Parker, take a look at the editing process and the creation of the score.

The extras continue with a self displaying photo gallery (12 min, 40 sec) which, well, shows you stills from the film, though I’m not really sure why. I guess if you’re a huge fan of the film you could loop it and have it as a screen saver on your television. The not insubstantial extras rounds up the disc with The Making of Midnight Express (7 min, 27 sec), which is an American featurette which is decidedly odd as it takes the stance that its awful to get arrested in another country, which does not share your idea of justice. The documentary shows Billy in a good light rather than a drug smuggler that got caught. Lastly there is an option for BD Live though at the time of writing there is no extra content available.

Controversy aside Parker has produced a cracking prison drama, which will have you riveted to the screen.


Charles Packer

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