Drugs are bad, kids. Don't do 'em, or you might wind up in a Turkish prison. And that would suck.
All right, that's not actually the message of 'Midnight Express'. But perhaps it should be. To the contrary, the film, which was written by Oliver Stone during the time period when he had quite a bit of first-hand experience with the subject, argues that drugs aren't the problem at all. Unsurprisingly, Stone's screenplay sees the real problem as the laws against drugs, and the rotten governments that would enforce them. Especially rotten foreign governments that don't even have any respect for our good ol' American rights. How dare they have laws that they enforce, and punish people for breaking them?
The film is kinda-sorta a little bit loosely based on the true story of William Hayes, a smug American jerkoff who traveled to Turkey with his girlfriend, purchased a considerable volume of hashish, strapped it to his body, and tried to waltz onto an airplane back to the U.S. Needless to say, he got caught. He was then thrown into prison. It was not a very pleasant place. After five years, he eventually escaped and made his way back to America, where he wrote a tell-all book about his experiences and became a minor celebrity for a brief time.
The movie, of course, rearranges all the details of the story and tries to turn Hayes into a saint. It does this primarily by preying on xenophobic fears about the evils of sweaty, smelly foreigners with their backwards laws and corrupt justice systems and twisted desires to punish Americans. For that, it's kind of reprehensible.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing about 'Midnight Express' is that it's actually a very well-constructed, well-acted, often dramatically compelling movie. Little-known actor Brad Davis really pours everything he's got into his portrayal of Hayes as a misguided kid who makes a stupid mistake and suffers immensely for it, driven to the brink of madness by the dehumanizing treatment of his captors. As a fellow English-speaking inmate who's been there much longer and found his own form of escape through heroin, John Hurt delivers a splendid performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Often-erratic director Alan Parker ('Fame', 'Angel Heart', 'Evita'), on only his second feature after the weird kiddie gangster spoof 'Bugsy Malone', conjures a nightmarish hellhole prison environment and a harrowing dramatization of Hayes' story.
The filmmakers have argued that they never set out to demonize the Turks, that the movie was only intended as an indictment against the injustice of hypocritical drug laws. Stone's script was written with the fire of righteous indignation. Nonetheless, every Turkish character is seethingly evil, abusive, or corrupt. The entire country is depicted as a vile pit of Hell, a place where good Americans can be imprisoned for life and brutally tortured, ass-raped, and killed for even the most innocuous of offenses. "Stay in your own backyard" is the movie's implicit message, whether intended or not.
Upon its release, 'Midnight Express' ignited a firestorm of controversy in international circles, but was greatly embraced in the home market it pandered to. Produced for almost no money at all, the film was a sizable box office hit and was nominated for six Oscars in all, two of which it won, including Best Screenplay. The movie launched Oliver Stone's career. Fortunately, he would go on to much better things in the future.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Midnight Express' to the Blu-ray format in Digibook packaging, of the same design that Warner Home Video has used on several previous titles (such as 'Bonnie & Clyde' and 'Amadeus'). Like most Sony releases, the disc opens with an annoying promo before the main menu.
All things considered, I'm sure that the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is as faithful a reproduction of the film as we're likely to get on home video. 'Midnight Express' was a very low budget production, with subject matter that calls for a grungy photographic style. The 1.85:1 image is appropriately grainy and hazy. The grain is heavier in some scenes than others. Fortunately, it's been well digitized and compressed. No overt Digital Noise Reduction artifacts are evident. The grain does not clump unnaturally or freeze in place.
The picture is reasonably sharp and detailed, if not necessarily exceptional in that regard. Colors and flesh tones also appear accurate, but are certainly not flashy or eye-catching. Black levels are shallow and frequently milky. That's likely part and parcel of the original photography as well. Unlike some of Sony's other recent catalog titles, the contrast levels have not been artificially boosted.
'Midnight Express' will never be sparkly HD eye candy. Nor should it be. The Blu-ray transfer looks suitably film-like to maintain the effectiveness of the movie's stylistic design.
The disc's audio quality is likewise limited by the potential of its source. Although Sony has remixed the movie's soundtrack into Dolby TrueHD 5.1, the results are still primarily monaural in focus. Giorgio Moroder's Oscar-winning electronic score has been spread to the front left and right speakers with a little stereo dimensionality, but dialogue and sound effects remain rooted in the center channel. The surround speakers are almost never put to use.
The fidelity of the track is extremely dated. It has a brittle high end and little dynamic range. The score is often strident, and dialogue is sometimes difficult to discern. Nevertheless, the sound design manages to create some interesting atmospheric effects, especially during scenes in the mental ward.
The original mono sound mix is also offered in standard Dolby Digital 1.0 format, with even worse clarity or fidelity.
The Blu-ray is a replication of the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD released in 2008. The first three HD featurettes were clearly designed to run as a single feature-length documentary, which the studio has shamelessly broken into pieces to reduce royalty payments.
Also included are several trailers for unrelated Sony titles.
Depending on your point of view, 'Midnight Express' is either a classic inspirational story about the triumph of the human spirit, or a vile racist screed. Perhaps it's both. The movie's grungy aesthetic is adequately captured by the Blu-ray transfer. Although I would personally not be inclined to purchase, the disc is at least worth a look for interested viewers.