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Midnight Express is a 1978 American/British film directed by Alan Parker and produced by David Puttnam. It is based on Billy Hayes' 1977 book Midnight Express and was adapted into the screenplay by Oliver Stone. It starred Brad DavisIrene MiracleBo HopkinsPaolo BonacelliPaul L. SmithRandy QuaidNorbert WeisserPeter Jeffrey and John Hurt.

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.

Midnight Express 1978 Poster

The 1978 theatrical release poster.


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.



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.

Home media[]

Main article: Midnight Express/Home media

The film's home video debut was in November 1979, as one of Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment's original 20 launch titles on the VHS and Betamax videocassette formats, after a highly successful run at the box-office. It was later released on Laser Video Disc in 1981, CED Videodisc in 1982, Video8 in 1986, DVD in 1998, and Blu-ray Disc in 2009.

Censored version[]

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.

  1. All of the swearing is dubbed/silenced.
  1. The chicken being decapitated is normally not shown when Billy makes a run for it leaving the Turkish Bazaar.
  1. 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.
  1. All of the nudity and violence scenes were censored.
  1. 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.

External links []