Something a little different for the #1977club today, in the form of a guest post from OH. He enjoyed his visit to the #1968club so much that he volunteered to write about another film/book from the relevant year, which he has done – at some length! As you might gather, he’s a Film Man rather than a Book Man, being much happier with the visual medium, and here he explores the history of the film and book, as well as its publication history and some of the differences! 🙂

A review of “Midnight Express” would not be complete without including the motion picture of the same title. Whereas the 1977 US publishing of the first edition hardback was not of itself a significant event, everything changed dramatically in the following year when the story was transformed into a major cinema release. With the added boost of a movie tie-in paperback, “Midnight Express” rapidly became an international bestseller, translated into numerous languages and reprinted over many years. From all of this, William “Billy” Hayes enjoyed a fair degree of celebrity, or notoriety, depending upon differing standpoints.

The original story could never have created or perhaps even foreseen the international controversy and condemnation which would result from the 1978 ‘film of the book’. The Oscar-winning screenplay, written by Hollywood director Oliver Stone, was a retelling of American Hayes’s ordeal in a Turkish prison. The twenty-three-year-old university dropout was imprisoned in 1970, after being arrested with four pounds of hashish, an initial sentence of a few years subsequently being extended to life imprisonment. The prisoner’s climactic escape years later, after his position looked hopeless, further elevated his memoir, combining a powerful biographical account of harsh punishment, endurance, strength of will, and resulting final freedom.

Photo of the author from first edition dustjacket

Hayes’s detention occurred at a time when Nixon’s US presidency had impaired relations with Turkey and international tensions were heightened by plane hijacks and acts of terrorism. As Hayes was leaving the country with concealed drugs (apparently not his first such venture), an unexpected and ill-fated airport search took place, driven by the dangers of hidden explosives possibly being carried. Ordinarily, given Istanbul’s popularity as a Hippie mecca of the time, ‘recreational’ drugs were not expected to be met with severe action by the authorities. However, with the prevailing political background, Hayes was being viewed as a criminal by some or a pawn by others.

The film “Midnight Express” premiered at the 1978 Cannes festival, sparking a clamour of disapproval over the depiction of suffering and barbarity within the Turkish prison (shot on the island of Malta). The dramatised events in the motion picture, whether broadly fictional or flagrantly false, caused an outcry from Turkey and its allies. Later the production was Oscar-nominated for best picture and best director (Alan Parker).

The depicted brutal treatment of the American subject not only caused fellow nationals to fear travelling to or through Turkey, but also damaged the country’s tourism industry. On the global stage, the enacted events and portrayals of the Turkish legal and penal systems drew international protests, both from those denouncing a claimed distortion of the truth behind the story and those demonstrating against a perceived extreme penalty and accompanying inhumane treatment.

Unknown to myself, and possibly most people, was that not only had the “Midnight Express” book appeared in America the year before the screen release, but  also that there had been a limited hardback run in Britain. More prominent were the US paperbacks, with their ‘passport’ cover design, and the British tie-in versions, bearing a movie photo on the front. The world mainstream premiere of the film was also in Britain, with the American release not occurring until the autumn of 1978.

I bought the book after seeing the film on its release and found that it contrasted greatly with the screen version. In particular, the book’s ending is also wholly different from the film’s violent denouement. It is hard to keep separate the written account from the screen events, but it cannot be denied that the movie helped to magnify Hayes’s saga of survival and memorable escape. His collaborating author William Hoffer has over the years been involved with a number of books about dangerous situations and international incidents.

There has of course been a rich history of classic prison tales, in the tradition of “Papillon”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Cool Hand Luke”, and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. “Midnight Express” chronicles a modern example of such stories, one of human endurance overcoming adversity, the reader being able to evaluate the level of wrongdoing on the part of the writer, as was the case with “Luke”, an offender arrested many times. Before leaving the cinema and world events behind, there can be a short account of the first printings of the Hayes book.

E. P. Dutton published the initial hardback edition in 1977. The company had produced books in America from the mid-1850s until a century later the imprint was acquired by Penguin. In Britain the book also appeared in hardback, as a 1977 limited run from Andre Deutsch. The publishing house had operated from the early 1950s and after issuing “Midnight Express” the company ceased trading a few years later.

E. P. Dutton and Andre Deutsch first edition 1977 hardbacks

1977 was also the year that the US Popular Library produced the first paperback. The company had started in the early 1940s and was sold off to Warner a few years after “Midnight Express” appeared. The British 1978 paperback came from Sphere Books, an imprint launched in the mid-1960s, eventually becoming part of Penguin in the 1980s.

Popular Library 1977 and Sphere Books 1978 paperbacks

Forty years on, to close the publishing, cinematography and social aspects of the story it can be added that composer Georgio Moroder produced the movie’s Oscar-winning soundtrack and a single from it became a huge chart and disco hit. Hayes has since written follow-up books, including published letters he wrote from prison, has embarked on talk tours and more recently has taken part in a documentary in which he returned to Turkey, as it were to make his peace with the country. Brad Davis, the actor who played Hayes in the film, died tragically young in 1991.

And so on to the Sphere paperback I purchased four decades ago. My copy of “Midnight Express” told a quite different story of Hayes’s years of detention in Sagmalcilar prison, compared to the movie’s nightmare establishment. Moreover, the screen events dwelt less on the prisoners’ everyday lives and the importance of bonds Hayes forged with inmates, he relying on friendships to stay sane. One aspect which was featured was the use and availability of hashish, including among guards, the drug ironically being the very substance which had landed Hayes in prison.

Hayes adopts an easy style, his sentences conversational. The early pages tell of his arrival at the airport, showing his passport and having to explain to security staff what was the frisbee in his shoulder bag. Having been waved through, all seemed well, up to the point when a final security check and a more thorough search was being made of the now fearful passenger. The tension reached a peak until the packages strapped to Hayes’s body were revealed not to be dangerous, simply drugs, to the apparent relief and amusement of the guards in attendance; the carrier was detained, his intended plane home departing without him. During the ensuing initial processing stages he made an opportunistic escape attempt which failed and so from that point on was treated as a foreign drug criminal and potential flight risk.

Leaving aside all the later courtroom scenes and parental or diplomatic attempts to secure Hayes’s release, the story’s main content chronicles the point from which the prisoner is delivered into permanent custody. Hayes relates his first sight of the “great grey prison” and how his early introduction to the place is one of being cruelly beaten for a minor misdemeanour. Only his connection with fellow prisoners will in due course lessen his feeling of vulnerability and isolation.

Another rule violation nets Hayes a more severe beating, such that he collapses and is just dumped back in his cell. He describes the ordeal and how, “Each prisoner knew what had happened. They were sorry for me. But glad it hadn’t been them.” Time moves on, Hayes writing letters to his parents who are trying everything to have their son moved back to the US. He does not burden them unduly with his suffering, but for the reader of his book he details, “Each morning as I woke a choking fear gripped me by the throat. My body ached from the lumpy wood plank bed.”

Hayes is visited by his father, lying to him that he’d never intended to sell drugs. The reader can sympathise with the harsh treatment, but reflect on the younger man’s attempt to carry drugs from the country he’d been visiting. As his months pass, Hayes turns to yoga as a way of escaping from the daily struggles. He gives up trying to fathom the arcane hierarchy of his place of confinement, commonly dubbed a “house of pain” by its hundreds of inmates.

After six months of “rotting at Sagmalcilar”, Hayes is taken to the Bakirkoy Mental Hospital, for assessment as to whether he is “crazy”. In a vivid account of communal exercise there, Hayes writes of a basement with a central supporting pillar, around which prisoners trudge aimlessly on a “journey to nowhere”. Soon Hayes finds himself being drawn in to the daily drudgery, describing how he and the shuffling men “flowed like the current of some sluggish, mindless river.”

Hayes tells of how gradually he was becoming more isolated from reality. “The constant babbling and screaming of the inmates tormented me. I had to get out fast.” Providentially, he learned of a lower security facility on Imrali Island, in the Bosphorus Strait, twenty miles from the Turkish mainland, where detainees worked out-of-doors, packing vegetables. However, Hayes’s own lot was to be condemned to continued confinement at the main prison and after three years and a series of legal attempts or appeals to free him, his sentence was hugely increased.

By the middle of 1974, the author had been held for three and a half years. Hayes, “Willie” to his associates, or “Vilyum Hi-yes” to his captors, heard in the August of President Nixon’s resignation. A year later the internee was more cheerfully writing one of his many letters home from Imrali island, having at last been transferred there from the prison which had held him for four years. Now he could cherish the “open air” around him and a view of the “far horizon”, the setting being to him a “paradise”, compared to the former Sagmalcilar enclosed surroundings.

On an autumn evening the sky turned black and Hayes took his chance to escape. Having slid down a small, muddy harbour he evaded searchlights and guards, swimming out to a distant fishing boat. Loosening the ties, Hayes felt the boat drifting out across the water until he could risk sitting up to row, reaching the open sea and confronting strong currents. Having landed on a distant shore, his next journey involved travelling on foot, hiding at times and finally swimming across a river, until he was out of Turkey, ending his enforced five-year stay in that country. When eventually a passport was arranged in Greece, Hayes was at last put on a plane home in the October, the fifth anniversary of the same month in which he had originally been arrested.

On 3rd April, 2018, Hayes turned seventy-one and reportedly now has a medical marijuana licence. His story, from four decades before, was all the more shocking, compared with today’s sadly commonplace news reports of suffering around the world. Hayes’s account of his ordeal is a powerful read, providing a first hand and authentic narrative of experiences and conditions most of us could not endure. He managed to hold out, while legal processes were pursued, illicit escape attempts were planned and stories from the outside world provided hope. When Hayes was finally and safely back home he wrote of how he went to the cinema and saw “Jaws”, now able with the audience to enjoy being terrified of a mechanical shark.