Some films have an influence that transcends their brief time on first-run screens, but it’s not always the films you anticipate that last.
“Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey,” an engaging documentary by award-winning television writer Sally Sussman, tells one such tale, the story of the creation, dissemination and afterlife of 1978’s “Midnight Express.”
Winner of two Oscars, for screenwriter Oliver Stone and composer Giorgio Moroder, “Midnight Express” was the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Billy Hayes, who miraculously escaped from a hellhole of a Turkish prison where he was serving a life sentence for smuggling drugs.
Though “Midnight Express” is nominally a serious film, it was directed in such an over-the-top way by Alan Parker (critic Pauline Kael, not a fan, called it “mean spirited fake-visceral”) that its remembered more in the comedy area.
As clips in “Midnight Return” demonstrate, the 1978 original was mocked by everyone from Jon Stewart to “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.” President Carter even made a press conference joke about it.
The other place “Midnight Express” made its presence felt was on Turkish-American relations in general and tourism between the two countries in particular where, one expert says, “the financial impact was profound.” All of which made Hayes, the source of the story, even more of a pariah in Turkey.
This seems to have come as a shock to Hayes, who comes across here as energetic, personable and self-involved. One of the thrusts of “Midnight Return” is his attempt to come to terms with that national animosity and to make restitution as much as he can.
Before the documentary gets to that, however, it devotes a big chunk of its running time to describing how the film got made in the first place via interviews with Stone, Parker, producer David Puttnam, executive producer Peter Guber and others. The juicy inside Hollywood stories they tell provide “Midnight Return’s” most engaging moments.
Stone and the producers, for instance, relate how Brits Puttnam and Parker studiously ignored Stone though he was writing the script in their offices. They even tiptoed out at night so the writer couldn’t hear them leave and perhaps ask to join them at dinner.
Things got more intense when “Midnight Express” was invited to Cannes and promptly labeled the most violent film ever to play in competition. French critics were aghast, labeling it racist and “an insult to the film medium” but the resulting fuss helped gin up publicity for the picture.
Though the filmmakers are well aware (how could they not be?) of the anger Turks worldwide continue to feel about the way the film depicts their country and their culture, they to a man studiously refuse to venture beyond various forms of self-justification.
Guber insists “nobody was making an anti-Turkish film,” while Stone claims, “I never felt I insulted Turkey. It’s a misunderstanding. I stand behind the film.” Parker takes perhaps the most extreme position, blandly announcing “as a work of art that’s the way it is.”
The only person truly upset about the way things turned out was Hayes, and “Midnight Return” deals not only with his feelings but also detailing how and why he was imprisoned and the specifics of his legendary escape.
The film also reveals that, contrary to the official line of the film (and the book Hayes co-wrote on which it was based), Hayes now admits that he in fact was a drug smuggler who’d made three previous successful trips before he was caught. That’s one fact the “Midnight Express” publicity machine never thought to pass on.
‘Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey’
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills