As it’s been 40 years since the release of Midnight Express (i.e. it was published in 1977), we thought it was time to review this bloody terrifying true story. American student Billy Hayes (now 70), on October 6th 1970, was leaving Turkey after a holiday and attempted to smuggle four pounds of hashish out. Probably not the best idea anyone can have, dear, but such is youthful hedonism, eh? Yeah, well that backfired a tad.
Caught in the act, he promptly went through a rather harsh and unforgiving Turkish penal colony system, which resulted in Hayes, effectively, being handed lifetime imprisonment. Horrified, but resourceful, in the great tradition of Papillon and the Count of Monte Cristo, he hoiked up his trousers, gritted his teeth, and braced himself for half a decade stuck in jail waiting for the right moment to escape.
There’s something about tales of imprisonment which piques human interest – what would you do with those feelings of resentment and frustration? Most of us have seen the Shawshank Redemption, which has a central theme of dealing with adversity and believing in hope. It’s the same for Midnight Express in many ways, although this is quite the chilling true story – a frightening example of how making a stupid decision in your youth can affect your life. Now, there are spoilers ahead, so if you want to go into this knowing nothing, hey, buy the book and read it – it’s good.
After being caught, and waiting with other criminals in a holding cell, Hayes entertained them all by showing off his juggling skills. Soon enough came his sentence with what, initially, appeared to be a relatively acceptable four year run. This, however, was warped into a lifetime imprisonment verdict for smuggling, as opposed to possession of drugs, leaving Hayes mortified.
Bunged into Sağmalcılar Prison (weirdly enough, such is the passage of time, this property is now a luxury hotel called the Four Seasons at Sultanahmet), the American government caught wind of this and stepped in to try and transfer sentencing rights to the US. Turkey’s foreign minister effectively told the country to mind its own business.
The years ticked on by and in 1972 Hayes found himself transferred to a Psychiatric Hospital which was, simply put, seen as a lunatic asylum. Dealing with life in prison and debating the life out of his sentence in the Turkish courts, by spring 1975 Hayes found his sentence reduced to 30 years (a good book or two would see you through that in no time) and he was moved to İmralı prison.
Absolutely fed up of it all by this point, in October 1975, despite being incarcerated on an island, Hayes made a break for it out of prison and then dashed to the Greek border (which included commandeering a small boat to get off the island). After further interrogation from Greek officials, he was deported to Frankfurt later in the month as a free man. He wrote this book shortly afterward and it is, really, a riveting read which highlights human tenacity and, of course, why you shouldn’t try and smuggle drugs out of other countries, you crazy kids.
The Oliver Stone adapted, Alan Parker directed 1978 Oscar-winning film was simultaneously critically revered, a box office hit, and controversial. Brad Davis was the star, with this actor having a rather obscure and tragic career. Despite the success of Midnight Express, he didn’t find much fame afterward (whereas co-stars John Hurt and Randy Quaid enjoyed immense careers) and, although he wasn’t gay, developed HIV in 1985 and died in 1991 aged only 41.
The film won two Oscars, with its unique soundtrack courting a lot of attention. It’s a damn good film, too – terrifying! Unfortunately, the Oliver Stone adapted screenplay warped much of what plays out in the novel and many in Turkey weren’t best pleased about this. The film does, however, seemingly depict the atrocious prison conditions and the harsh treatment of Hayes rather well, even if it turns into a bit of an American chest thumping exercise.
Now, we’ve since found out the film and book were deliberately inaccurate due to legal reasons, but this didn’t stop Hayes voicing his disappointment about certain sections of the film. He returned to Turkey in 2007 and even apologised to its people for the negative implications made in the book and the film, so there appears to have been a satisfactory closure on the whole event from both sides. Which is nice, for once.