Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2017

Midnight Return

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

Opening at the Laemmle theater in Los Angeles tomorrow, “Midnight Return” is a documentary about the narrative film “Midnight Express” that came out in 1978 and which was based on the actual escape from a Turkish prison by Billy Hayes, a hash smuggler. I saw the film that year and was shocked by the brutality of prison life, the sadism of everybody involved in the judicial and penal system, and walked out of the theater persuaded—like most people—that the Turks were monsters.

Writer-director has a lengthy background in soap operas, something that might have habituated her to extract the maximum amount of melodrama in tale that needs none. It is a remarkable tale of how an American hippie from Long Island was arrested in the Istanbul airport with 4.4 pounds of hashish taped to his midsection in October, 1970. At the time, Istanbul, like Kabul, was a magnet for many people my age who were looking to elevate themselves spiritually either with or without drugs. Most people left Istanbul with a gram or two of hashish but Billy Hayes clearly hoped to make a living out of drug dealing for the time being. What he didn’t anticipate was stepped up security for terrorism, which was triggered by the PLFP’s hijacking of a jumbo jet a month earlier. When he was being patted down by airport security, they immediately concluded that he was packing explosives rather than hashish.

Hayes was sentenced to four years in prison but three weeks before his release, the high court in Ankara reviewed his case and decided to re-sentence the 27-year old kid to life in prison. Even before his escape, Hayes had become a cause célèbre internationally with the NY Times publishing a lengthy article about the need to be wary of repressive drug laws overseas.

Once he learned that he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison, Hayes began plotting his escape from an island prison that was as isolated as Alcatraz. In a daring “midnight express”, he commandeered a rowboat and fled to safety across the border into Greece.

Once back in the USA, he was approached by publishers to tell his story but they considered such a blockbuster that the contract stipulated a 3-month schedule. It was clear that they saw a movie deal in the works. They were correct. Just after they were finished, they were approached by British producer David Puttnam of “Chariots of Fire” fame and fellow British director Alan Parker, who had a previous career in advertising.

They hired an American named Oliver Stone to write the script, his first major job that led to an academy award and the launching of his career in Hollywood. While his screenplay was intensely dramatic, it was also a racist hatchet job on the Turks that will remind you of how Arabs have been portrayed in more recent films. Besides making every single Turk look like a fat, sadistic misanthrope, Stone introduced fictional elements that made an already sensational story go into orbit. Instead of writing a climax that portrayed Hayes’s quite dramatic escape on a rowboat, he had him killing a guard and running off unnoticed. It seems that the producer was okay with this since his budget would not accommodate filming on the open waters. One of the signature moments of the film has Hayes denouncing the Turks after the life sentence had been handed down. Played by Brad Davis, his character calls the Turkish nation a bunch of pigs.

Stone, who certainly knows how to write starkly dramatic confrontations between good and evil in films such as “Platoon”, never thought much about the consequences of his script. Interviewed for the film, he says he regrets the consequences on Turkish society (tourism went into steep decline after the film was released) but—shrugging his shoulders—said it “was only a movie”.

That didn’t sit right with the real William Hayes who felt guilty about the demonization of the Turks and sought ways to become reconciled. Eventually, he made it back to Turkey and tried to set things right—thus the title of the film “Midnight Return”.

There are some problems with the film as might be expected from a first-time director but the story itself compensates for that. Angelenos, put this one down on your calendar.

 

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