If you haven’t heard of the movie Midnight Express (1978) it would be difficult to summarize. Part morality tale, part prison crime drama, part culture-shock and possible agitprop with deeper intentions than perhaps even the filmmakers were operating with at the time, this is the true story of a young American held in a Turkish prison and his five-year ordeal. The story is told with such conviction and painstaking detail as to be both heralded for its truthfulness and bravado and condemned for being a racist diatribe against an entire country. Alan Parker’s film, based on the non-fiction book by William Hayes (the protagonist of the story) with William Hoffer, was sold as “based on a true story” but there was plenty of meddling with the truth between Parker and then burgeoning screenwriter Oliver Stone (who won an Oscar for his script). While box office success and critical praise followed, Midnight Express remains a hotly debated film. In reaction to the backlash, Stone and Bill Haye’s both publicly apologized for what they agreed was an unfair and overstate portraiture of the Turkish people. Little has changed in reaction to the film, harrowing as some have described it, rendered with disturbing detail that is as haunting then as it is now. The film maintains a 95% rating at rottentomatoes and in 2003 writer Derek P. Rucas revisited the film with an article called Midnight Express: A Racist Ideology based on Alan Parker’s film Midnight Express.
Rucas’ article informs as much as it underscores a prevailing sense of racist ideology and stereotyping that is frequently codified in the historical fabric of cinematic storytelling. While Midnight Express is ultimately a loose account of the true story of Billy Hayes and what he endured while incarcerated in Turkey, what is really in question here is the significance of a film that according to Rucas and others perpetrates a classification of “Other” on cultures and people of color outside as well as inside mainstream America. Rucas might as easily be writing about current events rather than a film of nearly three decades ago when his article first appeared in 2003. Yet at the core of the film and what I would describe in reference to the unilateral criticism of the way in which the Turkish people and government are portrayed, is the difference between truth as it is narrowed, refined, and ultimately transformed through the lens of cinema. This question is important in discussing Midnight Express as it is the volatile and culturally conflicted world of today.
Rucas and others believe Midnight Express is just one example of many works that perpetrate racial stereotypes and further reveals a corrupt and despicable tendency to label different races, religions, and cultures as “Other” using extremist, exaggerated behavior intended to elicit fear and hatred in America and American citizens. These gross caricatures and overt inaccuracies are stylized and intensified through the cinematic experience. While I believe most films resort to archetypes and stereotypes in the telling of their stories, I would argue this is no different from any other film of any era in recent memory where the bad guys are quickly “Othered” for the sake of bolstering support for the good guys and a shorthand of storytelling. This is not to say that caricature and racist portrayals are acceptable or tolerable only that over the course of cinema history the proliferation of these character models have changed and will continue to change – hopefully for the better with good and bad characters being more fully developed, refined, and representative as not simply members of a group or opposing force but human beings with all the warts and scars that accompany them. Pointing out the shortcomings of the 1978 film Midnight Express I believe serves to inform every film since then. I assert that while the conventions have changed, meaning “Othered” characters are more fully realized, humanized, and less caricature, the motive will remain as a necessary and fundamental component of the storytelling process. The best cinema has to offer are characters that we can relate to even when those characters are on the wrong side of the law or stand in the way of the perceived good guy/gal protagonist and rather than seeing a nameless, faceless, stereotypical bad guy we can relate to them on varying levels of understanding and experience.
Rucas makes a sound observation regarding the distinction of technique, of the purposeful juxtaposition of aural and visual motifs and the frequent use of embellishment and otherwise ‘creative license’ to enhance a story. Even films like Sean Penn’s 2007 Into The Wild had to be adjusted and tweaked often in direct opposition to the idea of ‘based on a true story’ as the written medium and the medium of our personal experiences don’t necessarily make for the best cinematic experience. Rucas describes such meddling as, “quintessential elements of dramatic narrative form.” He goes on to refer to an article, “In the Occident, cliché’s about Turks are still surviving: The movie Midnight-Express, an actual case” that, as he points out, “…very questionable liberties [had] been taken with real events as related by Hayes” and that, “these liberties are in keeping with a deliberate process to accentuate and to emphasize the movie’s dramatic nature.” I suppose the danger whenever a filmmaker or studio uses the moniker, based on true events, or based on a true story, that the assumption therefore takes on much broader connotations and therefore references to culture and people must be handled with more care. I agree that a broad brush stroke of an entire race, religion, or culture is not only short sided but as Rucas points out, has the very real world possibility of promoting certain stereotypes that have wide and lasting consequences. However, first hand accounts of personal experiences should form some basis for the construct of the ensuing literature that follows whether that takes the form of an autobiography or major motion picture. We cannot simply devalue a person’s feelings, perceptions, or memory under duress on the grounds they are offensive or otherwise seem to promote a particular, albeit skewed perspective. The best and most immediate example I can think of is the duality of character employed to great effect by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and the Nazi solider Amon Goeth, brilliantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Unconscionable monster, indefensible brutal and lacking of nearly any approachable human emotions, Spielberg reveals his conflicted emotions regarding feelings for a Jewish slave girl and it is through this dichotomy that the monster and the man is revealed in layers and not simply as the source of our abjuration. Perhaps this is the very level of opposing portraiture that is missing in Midnight Express and had the filmmakers been able to humanize the Turkish guards this might not remain such a topic of discussion.
Originally Inspired by an article written by Derek P. Rucas – Midnight Express: A Racist Ideology