In 1970, American student Billy Hayes tried to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, only to be caught before he could leave the country. The Turkish government’s desire to send a message to drug offenders, combined with poor relationships with Nixon’s America, led to Hayes’ being sentenced to life in the hellish Turkish prison system, where he remained for years until his daring escape in 1975. This riveting true story served as the basis for a widely read memoir by Hayes, which in turn was adapted into an Oscar-winning screenplay by a then-unknown Oliver Stone. Stone’s script, Midnight Express, ultimately inspired an early masterpiece by one of the great director-cinematographer teams in recent film history: Alan Parker and Michael Seresin, BSC.
At the time of its release, Midnight Express was controversial and polarizing: Fans applauded the film’s intensity and craftsmanship, but some international audiences objected to the movie’s negative portrayal of the Turkish people. The 30th-anniversary special edition DVD release allows viewers to rediscover the film outside of its contemporary political context. And, if anything, Midnight Express is more powerful than ever.
Time has been kind to Stone’s script, which speaks to universal concerns about mercy and justice that transcend Hayes’ specific circumstances; and Parker and Seresin’s expressive images are equally timeless. The director and cinematographer were frequent collaborators on commercials, with Seresin also shooting Parker’s debut feature, Bugsy Malone. In Midnight Express, the two filmmakers established the approach that would characterize many of their later collaborations — such as Fame and Angel Heart — by using a mobile, hypnotic camera; graphic compositions that emphasize frames within frames (an especially appropriate technique for Midnight Express’ theme of imprisonment); and a unique juxtaposition of beautiful cinematography (often using smoke and backlighting to soften the actors’ appearances) with harsh, unforgiving subject matter.
Parker and Seresin are supreme stylists — in addition to the aforementioned movies, their collaborations include such visually arresting works as Pink Floyd: The Wall and Birdy. (In 2007, they were given the Duo Award at the Plus Camerimage film festival in Lodz, Poland.) Midnight Express is one of the pair’s greatest achievements, a drama in which each visual and aural component perfectly conveys the protagonist’s terrified, restless energy. A key theme of Stone’s script — trying to retain a sliver of hope in the bleakest circumstances — is communicated over and again by the dark images punctuated by soft shafts of light that imply a world of freedom outside. Seresin often pushes the darkness of his images to Godfather-like extremes, and thankfully Sony’s new DVD transfer is up to the task of accurately capturing his work’s tonal range and subtlety. The disc is simply flawless, with sharp, rich images and a remastered 5.1 soundtrack that keep Giorgio Moroder’s electronic score and a variety of psychologically motivated effects in perfect balance.
The DVD also contains several hours of expertly produced special features, all of which are informative and entertaining. Parker contributes a candid, insightful commentary in which he addresses the many challenges of the low-budget location shoot and acknowledges the places where his and Stone’s youthful naïveté made them guilty of some of their critics’ charges. He also discusses his ongoing collaboration with Seresin and other members of his production team, commenting, rather ironically, that while the faces behind the camera rarely change, he never uses the same actors twice. Parker also appears in three featurettes on the DVD, along with Stone, producers David Puttnam and Alan Marshall, executive producer Peter Guber, actor John Hurt and the real Billy Hayes.
Each documentary is around 25 minutes long and emphasizes different aspects of the film’s production: “The Producers” is, as its title suggests, a piece on Puttnam, Marshall and Guber’s roles on the picture; “The Production” takes a close look at the film’s shoot; and “The Finished Film” explores the editing, marketing and release of Midnight Express. Each of the interviewees is articulate and enthusiastic, and a gallery of production stills further fleshes out the history of the film’s making.
An illustrated booklet, “The Making of Midnight Express,” accompanies the DVD, and for once this kind of printed insert is more than just filler. Authored by Alan Parker, the booklet contains excerpts from the script, shot lists and storyboards as well as a beautifully written narrative of the film’s production and reception. Screenwriters in particular will find Parker’s notes fascinating, as he comments on the ways in which Midnight Express moved further and further away from the book’s literal “truth” on its journey to the screen. Regardless of the screenplay’s accuracy in terms of Hayes’ real-life experience, it evolved into one of the great films of the 1970s: a moving, brutally intense classic of visceral moviemaking in which three future masters of the medium — Parker, Seresin and Stone — first made their mark.