Midnight Express: How Hollywood Manipulates, Distorts, Defames, Libels and Propagandizes
Next week will mark the 68th birthday of one of the most influential — albeit underrated — filmmakers of our time, Alan Parker.
The English director created a number of prominent movies, including “Fame”; “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”; “Angel Heart”; “Mississippi Burning”; “The Commitments”; and “Angela’s Ashes.”
However, Parker’s best known film was one that sealed his reputation and concurrently created a controversy that persists to the day.
In October 1978, Parker’s epic “Midnight Express” was released and caused an immediate sensation in Britain, Europe and North America.
Based on an apparent “true” story, the film told the tale of Billy Hayes, a young American man who was arrested at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey for trying to smuggle hashish. Then the film grimly follows his subsequent conviction and incarceration in a brutal Turkish prison.
When I first watched this movie, as an impressionable young lad (probably too young, considering the adult subject matter), it made an overwhelming impact on me.
The film introduced me to a country and an environment I knew nothing about – but one that I found disturbing, compelling, fascinating and frightening.
Life in a gloomy prison in Turkey was portrayed in (apparent) graphic realism — a world ruled by fear, deception and extreme violence.
With the pulsating, hypnotic disco-influenced soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder, Midnight Express engrosses the viewer inside the claustrophobic, filthy realm of a gothic prison filled with murderers, perverts and rapists.
In the next-to-last scene, where Hayes kills his psychotically-brutal prison guard (“Police-baba”) and escapes the jail, one feels an incredible sense of euphoria and relief.
The sights and sounds from this spectacularly well-made film stayed with me for years, unlike any other piece of cinema I had watched up to that point.
However, as I got older, learned more about the world and travelled a bit, my attitude towards Midnight Express changed… quite dramatically.
I eventually realized that Parker’s masterpiece was a brilliant example of Hollywood propaganda designed to vilify and demonize Turkey and the Turkish people.
Of course, my evolution of thought was slow and gradual. When I first met real-live, actual Turks and mentioned the film, they expressed their anger about it. At first I didn’t understand their distress – after all, I countered, “it’s only a movie.”
But I realized that Midnight Express had insidiously penetrated into my subconscious and even made me fear the Turks.
The movie depicts Turks as violent, immoral, venal, psychopathic and debased. It’s understandable to portray violent, dangerous criminals in such an unflattering light, but the film extended this negative ethos to the judiciary, the courts and civil servants. Indeed, Midnight Express appeared to indict the entire Turkish nation as hopelessly corrupt, grotesque and “evil.”
I doubt any popular film in modern history has committed such a grave injustice against a whole country.
As an adult, in retrospect, I think I understand what Parker and his “co-conspirators” were doing. They sought to paint the Turk as “the other” and the “unyielding enemy.”
Moreover, Turks made the perfect “bad guys” (at least, back then).
At that time, most people in the west (or at least in Britain and the U.S.) did not have any clear idea who the Turks were or even where Turkey was located. Turks seemed to represent something vaguely “unknown” and “foreign.”
Hollywood has long used certain ethnic group as “villains” – depending upon current events and political trends, Arabs, Mexicans, American-Indians, Germans and Japanese, among others, have fulfilled this role (usually by actors whose own ethnicity did not match the parts they played).
However, with perhaps the notable exception of “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962, Turks were largely absent from the silver screen in the west.
Moreover, since the Turkish population in the Anglophonic world was relatively small then, there was little chance that too many people in the target-market would be offended by this movie.
Now that Turkey is an emergent political and economic power in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe, more westerners are familiar with the Turks, their glorious, ancient culture and cosmopolitan, sophisticated society.
Thus, nobody in Hollywood or London would dare produce a cartoonish and libelous film like Midnight Express today.
To be fair, Hayes and screenwriter Oliver Stone (who later became a prominent and highly controversial director himself) apologized for the movie’s negative portrayal of Turks.
As for Parker, he has always claimed that he did not intend to slander Turkey at all — he insisted he was simply making a film about “injustice.”
But that is a lame and feeble defense.
In the twisted morality of Midnight Express, Hayes, the American drug smuggler. is a kind of “noble hero” fighting against the violence and corruption of the Turks. He and other western inmates (including British, Germans, Swedes and other Americans) were depicted as “innocents” ensnared by Turkey’s warped criminal justice system.
In addition, not a single Turkish actor appears in the film – the “Turkish” roles are played by Italians, Greeks, Spaniards and Israelis. Turkish friends have told me that not even one word of Turkish is even uttered in the film! The movie was also entirely filmed on the island of Malta. (So much for authenticity),
Hollywood films have a terrible and powerful power to influence and shape our minds (even that of a sensitive, perceptive boy like me).
Midnight Express made a lot of money for a lot of people and ultimately that is all Hollywood really cares about.
But, as film-goers and consumers, we should realize that movies are highly biased and often designed to manipulate the audience.
Movies like Midnight Express, especially those which are as well made and entertaining, can actually be harmful and dangerous.
Source: PALASH R. GHOSH / International Business Times