IT’S one of the most famous and shocking films ever made.
But according to the man who lived through the real story of Midnight Express, the true story behind it is even more sensational.
And drug smuggler turned author Billy Hayes has told the Sunday Mail how delighted he is to be telling the true story on screen for the first time – 40 years after he made a dramatic escape from a Turkish prison by crossing open seas and minefields.
Billy, now 63, was caught smuggling hash out of Istanbul to the US in 1970 and thrown in a hellish jail.
After his escape four years later, he told his story in the best-selling book Midnight Express, which Oliver Stone and Alan Parker turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Brad Davis as Hayes.
Full of killings and sexual assault, the film became one of the biggest hits of the 70s.
But according to Billy, who has always admitted his crimes, the film is nothing like the hell he endured in jail.
He says scriptwriter Stone invented most of the violence and the rape scenes but missed out on the most exciting part of his story – a daring escape from an island prison and the murder of a close friend who was trying to break him out.
Billy is getting the chance to retell his story now in a documentary for the National Geographic Channel as part of the Banged Up Abroad series.
He said: “As much as I like the film, I’ve always had problems with it and I’m so delighted to finally get the chance to really tell my story, my way, with my words.
“My mum, who could only watch the movie once, likes the new programme.
“The only thing for me was going back to the story and revisiting all the pain I caused my family – that’s the worst part of it all and the bit that still comes back to me every day. The pain still feels as fresh as the day it happened.”
Billy’s story began in the 1960s, when he discovered marijuana and decided to make some money by smuggling it in from Turkey.
But he was caught on his fourth trip and got a four-year sentence.
He said: “I was so stupid. I felt like I was a swashbuckling pirate, James f***ing Bond, an international man of intrigue. Everything was easy until the sky fell on my head. I soon realised that my actions had consequences.
“Not only had I screwed up my own life but was causing my parents so much pain.”
During his first night in the Sagmalcilar jail, 23-year-old Billy tried to steal a blanket and was hauled in for punishment by a sadistic guard called The Bear, who tied him up by the feet and battered his soles with a stick.
In the film, it’s a terribly violent beating, with the implication the guard then sexually assaulted him.
But in reality, the foot smacking was an example of falaka, a light beating, and there was no sex attack.
Billy said: “They cane your feet and to outsiders it seems like a horrible thing but it’s not that bad.
“At the time, I thought it was killing me, but I soon discovered that it wasn’t a bad beating. Later on, I discovered what a bad beating was – they would break bones if they thought you had hash or information they wanted.”
While the film is full of violence, including the fictional scene where the Billy character bites the tongue of a prison trustee and kills a guard, most of it never happened and the worst thing about it was boredom.
“Prison was mostly endless boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
“The hardest thing for me was having to write the first letter home to my folks.”
Being incarcerated himself was one thing, but it was hurting others that was the worst part of his ordeal – and that only got worse when he enlisted childhood New York friend Patrick to secure false passports and documents to help him flee the country.
While dealing with underworld figures to buy the false ID, Patrick was murdered, leaving Billy distraught.
“Yeah, that was very bad. I’d already screwed up my own life, but then to have him die because of me was pretty much the low point and everything changed.
“I decided I just needed to do my time. I went to see his folks when I got back and that was very difficult.
“His mum was very happy to see me but they were shattered, how could you not be? I felt so bad, I told her that and she said she was fine because I’d have done it for him.
“He is with me every single day. I’m always thinking about him in so many ways.”
After he shelved his escape plans, Billy was dealt a hammer blow 54 days before his sentence was due to end, when the authorities changed his sentence to life in prison.
Facing the rest of his days in jail was too much and he soon started thinking about freedom again.
Transferred to Imrali, an island prison, he started work on his escape, which sounds like the plot of a movie in itself.
The facility was serviced by supply boats, which would always return to the mainland and never remain moored on the island. But one night, a storm left one vessel, which had a rowing boat tied to its bow, stuck at the island – so Billy took his chance.
He swam to the boat, then rowed for hours across the ocean to get to the mainland.
He said: “It was all or nothing and I was totally all in. I realised I would either make it or be caught and possibly killed, one way or another I would be free.”
He spent three days in Turkey, hiding out and dying his hair black, and then made a break for the Greek border. He crossed a minefield at the Turkish border and swam across the Maritsa river, where he was apprehended by Greek soldiers.
“The Greeks asked me everything I knew about Turkish military intelligence from what I’d seen in my escape, and then deported me.
Billy’s dad met him in an emotional reunion at New York’s JFK airport.
He wrote up his experiences in the book Midnight Express, which was then adapted into the movie in 1978. At the Cannes premiere of the movie, Billy met his wife Wendy and they have been together ever since.
Billy moved to Hollywood and found work as an actor, writer and director, but his ordeal remains a central part of his life.
He said: “I got myself busted but I got myself out, and in that way, I got my life back and my sense of self. In the end we always get what we deserve, and that’s a frightening thought.”
Banged Up Abroad, The Real Midnight Express, is on the National Geographic Channel tomorrow night, at 9pm.
I said sorry to Turkey
BILLY Hayes spent 30 years of his life trying to deal with the repercussions of the movie Midnight Express.
Eventually, he returned to apologise.
He was a huge fan of Turkey and the people, having made several trips there before he was arrested.
But the film’s violent and backward portrayal of the country saw a 90 per cent drop in tourism upon its release.
Although his own book is an honest account, the film shows the country in a terrible ligh.
He said: “I always did get on really well with the Turks and Istanbul is a fascinating city but they have a lot of issues to deal with and they don’t need my Midnight Express stuff on top of that. “The bottom line is the prisons suck, the legal systems suck but you could fill in the blanks of that with any almost country in the world. I was happy to go back there and say all this stuff again.”
The Turks invited Billy to Istanbul three years ago to tell the truth about the film and his opinions about their country.
While he admits to a paranoid fear he was going to be banged up again, Billy knew he had to do the right thing. He said: “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. “It worked, and I now feel I have made my balance with the Turks.”
Users’ Comments (1)
There has been a deep prejudice against Turks for centuries, since the days they served as a powerful force threatening Christian Europe. As finely crafted a film as “Midnight Exprress” is, rare has been the Hollywood film that has demonized a people and culture as completely as this film has, where everything Turkish and every Turk was depicted as either ugly or corrupt, or without any redeeming values to speak of. Oliver Stone was rewarded with an Academy Award for his screenplay and, unlike the director (Alan Parker), has — sadly — expressed little or no contrition for the great damage he has caused. The interesting point, however, is that few have acknowledged the deep racism of this film, and all of the hatred against Turks that it has caused, and this disturbing fact still points to the atmosphere of prejudice against Turks that exists today. Although the effect is perhaps not as powerful as when the film first came out (when the film influenced ignorant folks who knew nothing about Turkey), with each airing, “Midnight Express” still wreaks its campaign of hatred against Turks, and many still view it foremost as a respectable film and a “classic.”
Even in this article, we get the feeling that the author, Brian Mciver, would barely have shed the small light that he has on the racist harm this film has caused, which would probably be unlikely if the victims were any other ethnic group. Billy Hayes deserves credit for expressing his regret for his hand in demonizing a country and people, but in other articles he has gone much farther. For example, as much as prisons are not fun no matter what country they derive from, as Hayes laudably reminds us here, he has mentioned that there was more humanism in the way his prison was run than what he has heard about the typical dehumanization in American prisons.
It is time that responsible people shed their bigotry or ignorance, and stress the evil in the heart of “Midnight Express,” rather than strictly remember it fondly, as the effective thriller that the film happens to be — as most people would, if they were dealing with any other movie that displayed an entire group of humans as ones to be despised.
, Oct 3 2010