‘Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey’: Deauville Review

Midnight Return - Still 1 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Fact vs. fiction in a cult prison film nobody can forget.

The man behind the story of ‘Midnight Express’ returns to the country he escaped from and offers an apology to its people.

The term “Turkish prison” has become synonymous with torture, depravity, corruption and chewed-off human tongues — all of that thanks to Alan Parker’s 1978 drama Midnight Express, which told the “true story” of an American backpacker who was jailed for trying to sneak a few kilos of grade-A hashish back into the United States. With a screenplay by Oliver Stone (earning him his first Oscar), a haunting electro score by Giorgio Moroder (also scoring an Oscar) and a riveting performance from then newcomer Brad Davis, Midnight Express became a breakout hit that would forever be ingrained in the memories of many a viewer, though not always in the best sense.

Nearly four decades later, the man behind the movie has resurfaced in Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey, which is both a behind-the-scenes account of the original production and a feature-length mea culpa for a work that “misrepresented an entire country and group of people,” to quote one Turkish expert interviewed early on. After premiering in Cannes Classics and screening at Deauville, this debut documentary from TV writer Sally Sussman should appear on specialty networks and VOD outlets, providing an informative postscript to Parker’s explosive film.

Using an array of clips and sound bites, Sussman establishes two facts from the get-go. One: After shocking viewers at its world premiere in Cannes, Midnight Express became a box-office smash and pop culture phenomenon, its most famous scenes lampooned over the years by the likes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld and The Daily Show. Two: that cult status has clearly been a detriment to Turkey itself, which saw a major drop in tourism following the film’s release and has forever resented being deemed “a nation of pigs,” to cite one of the movie’s more damaging jibes at its people.

To hear Parker, Stone and Hayes discuss the project some 40 years after, it is clear they were less concerned with reality than with telling a harrowing story in the most intense way possible, leaving critics like Pauline Kael to dub Express a “mean-spirited, fake-visceral movie,” while Le Monde called it “racist.” By all accounts, fiction definitely won out over fact once the movie, which was very freely adapted by Stone from Hayes' autobiographical account, was greenlit: The shoot wound up taking place in Malta (one of the only countries that wasn't in cahoots with Turkey at the time), and, due to both artistic and budgetary concerns, a significant part of Hayes’ story was reworked — up to and including his miraculous escape from prison. (An escape so miraculous, in fact, that the Turkish pressed claimed the CIA had been involved.)

After detailing the film’s three-year voyage to the screen, Midnight Return then focuses on Hayes himself, showing how he became a national hero when he arrived home from prison and a media star upon the film’s release, trying a few years later to break into Hollywood as an actor (including a throwaway part in the Charles Bronson flick Assassination). A few choice tidbits of information, such as the fact that Hayes had already smuggled drugs several times before getting caught at the Istanbul airport, somewhat tarnish the image of a man who was mostly seen as an innocent victim at the time, his extended sentence the result of squabbles between the Turkish government and the Nixon administration.

The documentary’s final section — much of it shot on low-grade video back in 2007 — follows the 60-something Hayes on a return trip to Turkey. There, he tries to make amends with the locals, visiting the jail he was first brought to (it has since been upgraded into a Four Seasons Hotel) and choking up when remembering his darkest moments. Sussman ultimately portrays Hayes as a man with a good heart who did not necessarily realize how his own story would wreak collateral damage upon an entire people, while the filmmakers — especially Parker — are shown to be less remorseful about the whole experience. For them, Midnight Express is just a movie.

Production companies: Old Forest Hill Productions
Director: Sally Sussman
Producers: Anthony Morina, Sally Sussman
Executive producer: Anthony Morina
Directors of photography: David Mackie, William Kaufman
Editor: Sean H. Fanton
Composer: Anthony Marinelli
Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 100 minutes