One of the most gut-wrenching films ever created, Midnight Express is a terrifying portrayal of Billy Hayes’ harrowing escape from a Turkish prison. The unintelligible whispers in Turkish, along with the eerie melody accompanying every scene, set the tone for the hellish chain of events that slowly unravels as the movie progresses.
And while it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece, it would be a stretch to claim that it’s “based on a true story.” Billy Hayes wasn’t a clean-cut, clueless American backpacker. And it definitely wasn’t his first time in Turkey.
Let’s see what parts of the film remained loyal to Hayes’ tale, and what parts were made up for entertainment value.
The film portrays Hayes as a hash-smuggling newbie who innocently wanted to share some of it with his friends back in Long Island. But, in reality, Hayes had already been to Turkey three times before, successfully buying and smuggling hashish back to the States.
The first time he did it was via a fake cast. The second and third times were by taping the goods all over his thin body and covering himself with thick sweaters. He would buy two kilos for $300 and then sell it back in the U.S. for $5,000. Billy Hayes was confidently smuggling drugs and felt invincible those first three trips.
In the film, Billy Hayes is forcefully thrust into his cell. He looks at the cold, steel bed in the corner and asks Rafiki, another prisoner, for a blanket. Rafiki doesn’t know whether to laugh or to yell at the newbie, so he ends up curling his mouth into a creepy grin and mumbles, “tomorrow.” Haye doesn’t take no for an answer and attempts to steal a blanket from the room nearby. But did that really happen?
Yes. Hayes heard a “psst” from the neighboring cell, and realizing that his door wasn’t locked, he took his neighbor’s advice and sneaked a blanket from the corridor. A few moments later, Hayes was assaulted by the guards, who noticed his foolishly brave act.
In the film, Hayes’ punishment for stealing the blanket was a merciless beating from a sadistic guard known as the Bear. Hayes’ feet are tied, and he’s hanging upside down, staring at the grimy floor below. The guards violently tear at his soles and proceed to assault him sexually. How much of this is true?
This scene was somewhat true. In real life, Hayes suffered some serious foot smacking for stealing the blanket, but he wasn’t sexually violated. The sole hitting, also called “falaka,” was considered a light beating in prison: “They cane your feet, and, to outsiders, it seems like a horrible thing, but it’s not that bad.”
Arguably the goriest part of the film is a scene that shows a mad, mad Hayes assaulting a fellow inmate (who rightfully deserved it) with all of his raging force. But it wasn’t your ordinary blow to the face. It was a horrible onslaught that ended in Hayes ripping out the inmate’s tongue. But did any of this really happen?
No. Hayes didn’t maniacally stand on the edge of the stairs with a human tongue dangling from his mouth. This scene was (thankfully) 100% made up. Brad Davis (the actor) carried a pig’s tongue in his mouth. Unsurprisingly, shooting this bit upset the film crew so much that they had to leave the set for a breather.
Billy Hayes really did find himself in the sanitarium. But he wasn’t dragged there against his will after going all Mike Tyson on another inmate. Surprisingly, real-life Hayes wanted to go there. He faked being mad because he knew that the sanitarium had way less security, which meant a higher chance of escape.
According to real-life Hayes, the mental asylum in the film is an accurate replica. And the weird, emaciated guy who kept muttering “cigarette, cigarette, cigarette” was an actual person Hayes bumped into. He described him as having these “big-bug eyes staring at you like a semi-spider.”
In the film (as a nice break from the sheer terror in the hellish Turkish prison), we get to see some sensual and soft moments between Billy Hayes and a Swedish inmate, Erich. The two bathe each other, do yoga together, and even share a private mantra duet. They almost go all the way when Hayes stops Erich from going any further. How much of this is real?
In real life, Billy Hayes went all the way. And it wasn’t just a brief encounter in the shower. It was an on-going affair that lasted for quite some time. Many fans from the LGBTQ community were angry about director Alan Parker’s decision to distort the facts.
In the film, Hayes is seen standing in line at the airport with his girlfriend, Susan. Nervous and shiny from all the sweat, he convinces her that he’s just feeling a bit sick. After he gets caught, we see a dumbfounded Susan staring in disbelief as the big, bad officers drag her boyfriend away. Did any of this happen?
No. Hayes was alone when he was caught. The directors added a fictional Susan to add a bit more drama to the scene (as if getting caught wasn’t dramatic enough). In real life, Hayes rode the bus to the plane with some random woman who kept babbling on about her son.
Actor John Hurt did an incredible job playing Max, an English inmate who was slowly rotting to death within the crumbling prison walls. With his tiny glasses, frail physique, and pet tabby cat, Max was a great character who added both heart and humor to the film. But was he an actual person?
Yes. Real-life Hayes befriended a guy named Max in prison. But the actual Max was a Dutchman rather than a Brit. Hayes commented that he was startled by how much John Hurt resembled the Max he had once known.
The courtroom scene where Hayes spits out some vicious lines against the Turkish penal system is dramatic and painful. He curses the judge for tying him to life in that hellhole, followed by some really harsh claims. Did Hayes really deliver such a dramatic monologue?
No. In reality, Hayes never said any of those things. He was obviously shattered by his new sentence, but he never went so far as to call everyone in court a bunch of pigs. Real-life Hayes claimed that the courtroom scene made him the most hated man in Turkey after the film’s release.
Billy’s escape in the film is just – chef’s kiss. We get to see a smooth, sly Hayes play dress up and march out of the prison gates unnoticed (but not before he’s tossed the keys to his freedom by one of the guards). But is this really how Hayes escaped?
No, Hayes never killed the Bear and stole his uniform. Real-life Hayes escaped by boat after he was transferred to Imrali, an island prison 17 miles offshore, in the Sea of Marmara. Hayes rowed for hours across the ocean until he reached the mainland. After hiding for three days, he made a break for the Greek border.
Although the story is set in Sagmalcilar Prison in Turkey, the actual prison we see in the film is Fort St. Elmo in Valletta, Malta. The reason for that is pretty straightforward. Turkey wanted nothing to do with the making of this film. They denied any requests to shoot it there.
To find a suitable jail, the crew scouted locations in France, Israel, Crete, Cyprus, Italy, and Spain, before eventually settling on Malta. As a result, many of the “Turkish” officers are actually Maltese. Some of them even spoke Maltese in the film because they had forgotten their Turkish lines.
Director Alan Parker wanted to cast unknown actors to enhance the feel of authenticity and had his heart set on anonymous Brad Davis as the lead. But his co-workers wanted someone else to take it – the young, good-looking, well-known Richard Gere.
Parker and his co-workers went back and forth on the topic. Some executives went to great lengths to get Davis off the list by claiming he was cross-eyed and, therefore, unfit for the role. Davis was then taken to a doctor who tested him and gave him a signed letter that ensured everything was fine with his vision.
In the film, the inmates wear torn clothes, have oily, tangled hair, and dirt all over their bodies. In John Hurt’s case, he wasn’t acting. To come off as a weary prisoner, Hurt stopped bathing for most of the film’s shooting. He reeked so badly at times that his colleagues avoided any close contact with him.
His devotion to his role was as disgusting as it was impressive. Hurt’s six-week-no-shower-stunt earned him a Golden Globe award, a BAFTA award, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
All it takes is one or two scenes from the film to understand why many people were offended by it. Not only was it not an accurate representation of Hayes’ experience, but it was also an exaggerated, stretched-out, dramatized version of it. Theaters across the world received backlash for screening it.
In December 1978, a theater in Australia was evacuated because of a bomb threat associated the screening of the film. In a similar manner, the Netherlands suffered a hit after one of their theaters was set on fire while showing the movie.
One tragic part of Hayes’ journey was left out of the film. The part that had to do with Patrick, his childhood friend from the U.S. who had crafted a plan to get him out of there. It involved getting his hands on some false IDs and papers, but he was willing to do it to bust Hayes out.
Patrick raised money and paid guys from the underworld to get the work done. But something went very, very wrong, and he was found in his hotel room with a dagger deep in his chest. “I’d already screwed up my own life,” Billy recalled, “but then to have him die because of me was pretty much the low point, and everything changed.”
The movie shows a tired yet hopeful Hayes carving 53 days on the crumbling prison wall. 53 days was all that stood between him and his former life. Tragically, authorities changed his sentence to life at the last minute. They dangled 53 days in his face and then ruthlessly snatched it away. Was this how it really played out?
In reality, Hayes had 54 days left (we’re not sure why they subtracted one day). Real-life Hayes was so close to getting out when his crime was changed from possession to smuggling, which added 30 years to his sentence.
The scene where Billy Hayes goes all crazy on the pipelines and sinks and breaks every pitiful facility in the prison is so captivating that you forget he’s even acting. Director Alan Parker mentioned that even the film’s crew was genuinely frightened and had no idea what he was going to break next.
“Brad was literally so out of control we never knew quite what he would hit,” he revealed. Parker also added that the cameramen ran around like madmen in the room to keep up with Davis, “With Brad, who is suddenly not really acting but actually going a little crazy, we had to be fast on our feet.”
Incredibly, the studio had little faith in the movie’s success and was mostly frightened by the things that were happening on set. “Managing the expectations of the studio wasn’t hard because they had no expectations! What we were trying to do was not to get shut down by the studio because they got frightened of the film,” executive producer Peter Guber confessed.
Midnight Express was on a low budget – $1.7 million, and it had no memorable names starring in it. This meant that the studio couldn’t have cared less about what was going on. The movie ended up grossing $35 million! Proving to everyone that you don’t need heaps of money or famous stars to craft a cinematic masterpiece.
There was a “scary” moment during the film’s production: when Alan Parker ripped out the last eight pages of the script, wrapping up four days earlier than planned. An action scene everyone was eager to do was in one of those eight pages, and it was the reason the studio agreed to film the movie in the first place!
The movie ends with Hayes jumping up in the air after successfully breaking out. But executives expected to see him go all the way to the Greek border. “They wanted an escape movie, and we’re giving them a prison movie,” producer Alan Marshall explained. Ultimately, ending the movie right when he broke free was a perfect choice. Anything more would have been a drag.
John Hurt agreed to play the role of Max without reading the script, because the second he saw Alan Parker’s name on the film, he knew he wanted to do it. It was the only time he agreed to participate in a film without fully understanding what it was about or what the requirements were.
Hurt confessed that playing the part of the absorbed English druggie was one of the greatest experiences in his career, despite the long hours and tight schedule: “We worked like dogs, and we played hard. It was a terrific experience.”
Brad Davis gave everything (and then some) to the movie during the 53 days of shooting. Being a new face in the industry, he wanted to prove his worth. So, he pushed himself mentally and physically to the point where was no longer Brad, but “Billy.”
By the end of the film, Davis was “convinced that he’d just spent four years in a Turkish prison instead of 53 days on a Malta film set,” director Alan Parker revealed. The movie’s release made Davis an overnight sensation, but, just as quickly, he spiraled into drugs and alcohol and tore his reputation down in an instant.
One thing the studio didn’t want to give up on was the introductory statement, “Based on a true story,” a phrase that makes the hearts of all viewers flutter with excitement and curiosity! But the dramatic changes (the most evident one being Hayes’ form of escape) made producers a bit uncomfortable with it.
Alan Parker felt that calling it a “true story” was stretching it. Many filters altered Hayes’ true experience, including the editing, the shooting angles, the screenplay, everyone’s different notes, and even Hayes’ fuzzy memory of the whole ordeal.
Despite Billy Hayes’ terrifying capture in Turkey, he doesn’t hate the country. Bottom line, he entered their territory and smuggled illegal substances across the border, so being angry at them for arresting him would be dumb.
Years after his escape, the Turkish government invited Billy to Istanbul to express his true opinions about the film and the country. “I was aware I was not a well-liked guy in Turkey. But I got a chance to say how much I like Turkey and how well I had got on with the Turks,” he revealed; “it worked, and I now feel I have made my balance with them.”
In the winter of 1976, Universal Studios invited Alan Parker to New York to see the stage version of The Wizard of Oz with the intention of getting him to turn it into a movie. Parker wasn’t impressed and politely declined their offer. On his way back to his hotel, he bumped into producer Peter Guber.
After a brief chat, Guber told Parker he had a manuscript of an incredible book to give him and ran into the hotel to snatch it. On the flight back to London, Parker read the book from beginning to end, and, by the time he landed, he was completely hooked!
After a long, tiring day of casting in Los Angeles, Alan Parker still had not found his guy. He was about to wrap up, when a bashful young man poked his head into the room – it was Brad Davis. With his hands and face full of grease, he apologized for being two hours late and explained it was because his car had broken down.
Not willing to give up on the audition, Davis abandoned his car and ran five miles to get to the interview. “He was desperate to play the part — so fragile and vulnerable and with a pent-up, frustrated rage and so much spare energy that he scarcely knew what to do with it,” Parker recalled.
The film’s evil antagonist, Hamidou, also known as the Bear, was played by Paul Smith, an Israeli/American actor whom Parker had met in New York. Parker was impressed with Smith’s eclectic past and intriguing resume that included studying at Harvard, fighting in the Israeli Six-Day War, and starring in kung fu movies in Taiwan.
Parker’s only requirement was for Smith to shave his head and take off his beard: two acts that made the Israeli actor terribly nervous! He jokingly proposed that they should insure his hair in case it never grew back again.
Tension was high on the set of Midnight Express. The dark script, the prison walls, the scorching hot weather, and the long and exhausting hours were enough to make the whole cast lose their minds. It was practically impossible not to go crazy in that bleak environment.
But despite (or maybe because of) the occasional craze, the crew shared some good laughs during those 53 weeks. Being in each other’s faces for so many hours day after day turned them into one big and weird happy family.
Brad Davis showed up drunk to one incredibly distressing scene – the one where his girlfriend Susan comes to visit him when he’s in the mental asylum. Davis had been extremely apprehensive about shooting that bit and had taken a few shots of cognac for some extra courage.
During filming, the camera broke down, so they had to take a short break, which Davis used to fire up some more cognac shots. By the time the new camera was up and running, he was unable to do the scene, so they wrapped up that day’s filming.
In the script’s first draft (and also in reality), Hayes was transferred to an island prison and escaped by rowing one night all the way back to the mainland. But in the second draft, and the one that ended up being the final draft, Hayes wages a vicious fight against Hamidou, one that ended in Hamidou’s death.
The scene wasn’t entirely convincing, considering Hamidou’s massive size and Billy’s frail figure, yet it was chosen as the final draft. They wanted to end on a dramatic note with the death of the second most hated guy in the film (Rafiki is the first).
David was thrown into the spotlight immediately after the film’s release and went from an anonymous, aspiring actor to the guy everyone wanted to work with. But it ended up being too much for the young star, and he rapidly burned out.
His wife recalled one time when he ripped his shirt off at a Hollywood party and yelled, “O.K! Who’s got the drugs?” She then overheard a director muttering to the guy next to him, “There goes that career.” Davis had a traumatic upbringing (alcoholic dad, sexually abusive mom), so we’re guessing that his unhinged behavior resulted from some seriously repressed emotions.
Irene Miracle played Hayes’ fictional girlfriend, Susan. Her role wasn’t large, but she took part in one of the most horrifyingly enchanting scenes in the film, the mental asylum visit. She came across the film completely by chance after running into an old friend who had just opened a talent agency.
He passed her a copy of the script and gave her three hours to rehearse her lines and find the perfect outfit to wear. Shortly after her audition in front of both Alan Parker and producer David Puttnam, she received a phone call saying she got it. The next morning, she was on her way to Malta.
Shooting Susan’s visit to the mental asylum was mentally and emotionally draining. It took them over 20 times to get the perfect shot and capture the emotional state they were striving for. Luckily, the filmmakers built a box just for Irene Miracle and Brad Davis, to ensure they were getting all the privacy they needed.
“Thank god,” Irene dished, “[it’s] hard enough to shoot a scene like that but if we’d had a whole crew of people watching I don’t know how I would have gotten through that day.” The actress was given the freedom to do the scene as she wanted, and if you’ve seen the movie, you know she nailed it.
The scenes in Midnight Express are gory, dizzying, and nauseating enough to make you cough up all you had for lunch that day. Director Alan Parker mentioned in an interview that he saw a woman throw up in the lobby during one of the film’s early screenings.
“I remember saying, ‘Come on, the film’s not that bad’” he recalled; “But suddenly you realize that what flickers up there on the screen for you, as a filmmaker, is an illusion, a thousand shots with fifty thousand Scotch-tape joins. But the effect on an audience is something else.”
In addition to his novel Midnight Express, Billy Hayes has written two more books – Midnight Return: Escaping Midnight Express and The Midnight Express Letters: From a Turkish Prison. Both works give us a further glimpse into Hayes’ experience.
Throughout the years, Hayes has been involved in several theater projects, both as an actor and director. His most memorable one is his one-man show entitled Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes. He launched it in 2013 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has since then taken it to London, Australia, and Beirut.
Over two decades after Hayes’ Turkish stay, a documentary surrounding the repercussions of his story was released – Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey. It follows Hayes on his journey back to Turkey, a country that has been tremendously affected by the film.
The documentary covers the geopolitical consequences, including the economic damage that Turkey suffered (and maybe still does) due to the way it was portrayed in Alan Parker’s blockbuster masterpiece. It’s an important reminder of the responsibility filmmakers carry when they put something into the public sphere.