on November 26, 2012
This movie is great. The acting is good, the plot is intense, and the directing is well-done. In fact, I would have given it a five- star rating, had I not read the book.
I did this backwards. I first read Midnight Returns (reviewed on 11-14-12, which is the follow-up book to Midnight Express, which is the story of a man who escapes from the brutality of a Turkish prison. Having been sufficiently impressed, I bought the original book, and once again I was so moved I purchased the movie.
Unlike the book, the movie is unclear in a lot of places, but most of that is irrelevant, since the basic idea is there-- there is no such thing as human rights and justice in that foreign prison, and every man is at the mercy of the whims of his jailer. So in that regard, it was engrossing, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1978, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. And that's baffling to me, because it's that very thing that disappointed me.
I understand that movies based on true stories often change some details to make for a smoother presentation, but this one went too far. My basic gripe was with the ending. Spoiler Alert: I'm going to compare the two endings, so further reading of this will ruin any suspense as to the final outcome. On the other hand, most readers probably already know that in the end, Billy triumphs and escapes. That's what made this movie such an inspirational hit several decades ago. But it's the details of that escape that diverged so far from the truth , it ruined the very heart of the story.
In the movie, there is an accident of Fate, and Billy takes advantage of the situation and waltzes out of the prison in broad daylight. What a lucky break! The truth is completely different. Billy carefully plots, studying various avenues of escape, inspecting places to hide, observing the prison routine, and working his body to build up stamina for the Big Day. After several years, he then makes his move, hiding in a large container, then swimming quietly to a small dinghy, rowing that boat in terrifying seas, nearly succumbing to total exhaustion. He finally makes landfall, then moves surreptitiously toward the Greek border, all the while looking frantically over his shoulder, knowing there is an APB on him. The first part of the book is frightening in that it shows the futility of his situation, but the last few chapters are an edge-of-your-seat thriller because, in contrast, it offers that wonderful thing called Hope. You know the odds of success are not good, and you know the consequences are horrific if he fails. Billy does a great job of conveying this terror in his narrative, and I found myself drawn in, hardly daring to breathe, lest his enemies hear me. What a shame to eliminate this rich and gripping ordeal from the movie.
This change from fact to fantasy not only robs us, the viewer, but it cheats Billy as well. His escape was not a stroke of luck; it was a testament to the courage, patience, endurance and single-minded focus of this heroic man. In the end, it was guts and perseverance that set Billy free.
Having said all that, I would still recommend the movie. It's a good story -but the book is better.