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Midnight Express

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Loco: Midnight Express

Hollywood iconoclast Oliver Stone took home his first Academy Award for his screenplay to this film, an adaptation of Billy Hayes’ 1977 memoir. Midnight Express recounts Hayes’ actual stay in a Turkish prison. In 1970, Hayes rather unwisely tried to smuggle hash out of the country, resulting in his conviction by a Turkish court, and sentencing to stay in a draconian prison. There, he befriends a handful of foreigners while enduring daily beatings and torture at the hands of the sadistic guards. Billy also engages in homoerotic relationships with his fellow prisoners, occasionally flirting with full-blown sex.

In the hands of director Alan Parker, Midnight Express caused a sensation in 1978, scoring six Oscar nominations including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for John Hurt’s performance. It won two, for Stone’s screenplay and Giorgio Moroder’s score. The movie also generated wild buzz over actor Brad Davis’ leading performance. Davis won rave reviews for his performance in the lead, though his career as a leading man never took off. Though married to a woman with children, Davis’ bisexuality was an open secret in showbiz. The prevailing homophobia of the day limited his career prospects, though he did enjoy some acclaim on stage, starring in the original off-Broadway production of The Normal Heart. He died of AIDS in 1985.

Midnight Express, for all its extreme violence (and it is extreme–it’s Oliver Stone after all), offers a fascinating and erotic exploration of masculinity and male intimacy. It also features a terrific performance by Davis–a queer actor whose legacy remains largely unsung. Critics have also commented on the sensationalistic elements of the film added from the novel (including prison rape) and Hayes himself has decried that the movie actually toned down the consensual gay sex among inmates, which was frequent. Hey, it was 1978–that a major film like this which does extoll the eroticism among prisoners could exist at all is a minor miracle.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s time Hollywood remade Midnight Express complete with its gay relationships intact. Watch the original, and see the potential for yourself.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.