Hayes was a young American student sent to a Turkish prison for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. The movie deviates from the book's accounts of the story — especially in its portrayal of Turks — and some have criticized the movie version, including Billy Hayes himself. Later, both Stone and Hayes expressed their regret on how Turkish people were portrayed in the movie. The film's title is prison slang for an inmate's escape attempt. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated the film "R".The film has found a devoted following over the years due to television broadcasts and release on the VHS and Betamax videocassette formats.
On October 6, 1970, while on holiday in Istanbul, Turkey, American college student Billy Hayes straps 2 kg of hashish blocks to his chest. While attempting to board a plane back to the United States with his girlfriend, Billy is arrested by Turkish police on high alert due to fear of terrorist attacks. He is strip-searched, photographed and questioned.
After a while, a shadowy American (who is never named, but is nicknamed "Tex" by Billy due to his thick Texan accent) arrives, takes Billy to a police station and translates Billy's English for one of the detectives. On questioning Billy tells them that he bought the hashish from a taxicab driver, and offers to help the police track him down in exchange for his release. Billy goes with the police to a nearby market and points out the cab driver, but when they go to arrest the cabbie, it becomes apparent that the police have no intention of keeping their end of the deal with Billy. He sees an opportunity and makes a run for it, only to get cornered and recaptured by the mysterious American.
During his first night in holding at a local jail, a freezing-cold Billy sneaks out of his cell and steals a blanket. Later that night he is rousted from his cell and brutally beaten by chief guard Hamidou for the blanket theft.
He wakes a few days later in Sağmalcılar Prison, surrounded by fellow Western prisoners Jimmy (an American—in for stealing two candlesticks from a mosque), Max (an English heroin addict) and Erich (a Swede, also in for drug smuggling) who help him to his feet. Jimmy tells Billy that the prison is a dangerous place for foreigners like themselves, and that no one can be trusted—not even the young children.
Billy meets his father along with a U.S representative and a Turkish lawyer to discuss what will happen to him. Billy is sent to trial for his case where the angry prosecutor makes a case against him for drug smuggling. The lead judge is sympathetic to Billy and gives him only a four-year sentence for drug possession. Billy and his father are horrified at the outcome, but their Turkish lawyer insists that the term is a very good result.
Jimmy tries to encourage Billy to become part of an escape attempt through the prison's tunnels. Believing he is to be released soon, Billy rebuffs Jimmy who goes on to attempt an escape himself; he is brutally beaten when he's caught. Billy finds out afterwards (1974), out of the blue one day, that his sentence is overturned by the Turkish High Court in Ankara after a prosecution appeal (the prosecutor originally wished to have him found guilty of smuggling and not the lesser charge of possession, and he is ordered to serve a 30-years-to-life term for his crime. He is in shock.
Billy goes along with a prison-break Jimmy has masterminded. Billy, Jimmy, and Max try to escape through the catacombs below the prison, but their plans are revealed to the prison authorities by fellow-prisoner Rifki. His stay becomes harsh and brutal: terrifying scenes of physical and mental torture follow one another, culminating in Billy having a breakdown. He beats up and nearly kills Rifki. Following this breakdown, he is sent to the prison's ward for the insane, where he wanders in a daze among the other disturbed and catatonic prisoners. These scenes are moving and show Billy's profound pain.
In 1975, Billy's girlfriend Susan comes to see him. Devastated at what has happened to Billy, she tells him that he has to escape or else he will die in there. She leaves him a scrapbook with money hidden inside as "a picture of your good friend Mr. Franklin from the bank", hoping Billy can use it to help him escape. Her visit moves Billy strongly, and he regains his senses.
He says goodbye to Max, telling him not to die, and promising to come back for him. He then tries to bribe Hamidou into taking him where there are no guards, but Hamidou takes Billy to another room and prepares to rape him. Billy is clearly afraid and powerless, but he is still fighting back, and suddenly he inadvertently kills Hamidou by pushing his head/skull onto a coat hook sticking out of the wall.
This is clearly the miracle he has been waiting for four years. He seizes the opportunity to escape by putting on a guard's uniform and walking out of the front door. In the epilogue, it is explained that on the night of October 4, 1975, he successfully crossed the border to Greece, and arrived home three weeks later.
- Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, an American college student who was arrested for drug smuggling.
- Irene Miracle as Susan, Billy Hayes's girlfriend who visits him in prison.
- Bo Hopkins as "Tex", a shadowy American who was never named. He was given the nickname "Tex" because of his Texan accent.
- Paolo Bonacelli as Rifki, the fellow prisoner at the Sağmalcılar Prison.
- Paul L. Smith as Hamidou, the prison warden who fights with Billy.
- Randy Quaid as Jimmy Booth, an American prisoner who was in for stealing.
- Norbert Weisser as Erich, a Swedish prisoner who smuggled drugs like Billy.
- John Hurt as Max, an English heroin addict.
- Kevork Malikyan as the Prosecutor
- Yashaw Adem as the Airport police chief
- Mike Kellin as Mr. Hayes
- Franco Diogene as Yesil
- Michael Ensign as Stanley Daniels
- Gigi Ballista as the Judge
- Peter Jeffrey as Ahmet
- Michael Yannatos as Court translator
Midnight Express received both critical acclaim and box office success. According to the film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, 95% of film critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 20 reviews.
Negative criticisms focused mainly on its unfavorable portrayal of Turkish people. In Mary Lee Settle's 1991 book Turkish Reflections, she writes, "The Turks I saw in Lawrence of Arabia and Midnight Express were like cartoon caricatures, compared to the people I had known and lived among for three of the happiest years of my life." Pauline Kael, in reviewing the film, commented, "This story could have happened in almost any country, but if Billy Hayes had planned to be arrested to get the maximum commercial benefit from it, where else could he get the advantages of a Turkish jail? Who wants to defend Turks? (They don’t even constitute enough of a movie market for Columbia Pictures to be concerned about how they are represented)". One reviewer writing for World Film Directors wrote, "Midnight Express is 'more violent, as a national hate-film than anything I can remember', 'a cultural form that narrows horizons, confirming the audience’s meanest fears and prejudices and resentments'"
David Denby of New York criticized the film as "merely anti-Turkish, and hardly a defense of prisoners' rights or a protest against prison conditions". Denby said also that all Turks in the movie—guardian or prisoner—were portrayed as "losers" and "swine" and that "without exception [all the Turks] are presented as degenerate, stupid slobs".
Turkish Cypriot film director Derviş Zaim wrote a thesis at the University of Warwick on the representation of Turks in the film, in which he concluded that the one-dimensional portrayal of the Turks as "terrifying" and "brutal" served merely to reinforce the sensational outcome and was likely influenced by such factors as Orientalism and capitalism.
On TV airings, as well as the 1980 clamshell VHS/Betamax release with red border artwork, these changes were made to make the film more family-friendly.
- All of the swearing is dubbed/silenced.
- The chicken being decapitated is normally not shown when Billy makes a run for it leaving the Turkish Bazaar.
- When Billy Hayes is naked during a strip-search after his arrest, we only see his face on screen. Also, Tex's line, "Would you like to put your clothes on?", was deleted.
- All of the nudity and violence scenes were censored.
- The scene where Susan, Billy's girlfriend, exposes her breasts and Billy touches them when she comes to visit him and sees his horrifying, almost vegetative state, was very skillfully deleted.
To watch the film with these edits, click here.