The history of penology is the saddest chapter in the history of civilization. It portrays man at his worst. His cruelty, brutality and inhumanity are unrestrained through most times in most places. Virtually absolute power over nearly helpless people has often wholly corrupted.
            — Ramsey Clark

In 1970 Billy Hayes, an American youth, was caught at the Istanbul Airport trying to smuggle some hashish out of the country. He was given a sentence of five years and confined in a decrepit Turkish prison. This gripping film based on Hayes' book tells the harrowing story of his ordeal and eventual escape.

Director Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone) once again proves himself to be a master of creating memorable milieus. He puts us into a limbo of dirt and desolation and forces us to feel in our bones the terrible loneliness and brutality of the godforsaken penal colony.

Brad Davis does a remarkable job conveying the variety of moods which come over Billy Hayes as the years pass. At first he holds out hope for an imminent release. His father, American officials, and others are trying. But then the Turks decide to give him a new trial. Instead of freedom, he receives an incredibly stiff thirty-year sentence. When his two best friends in prison — Max (John Hurt), an English drug addict, and Jimmy (Randy Quaid), an American who is obsessed with the idea of escape (catching the midnight express) — are done in, Billy's spirit snaps.

For the first hour, the movie works like a hammer lock on the viewer's mind. Then the driving rhythm of the drama builds to a brutal finale. Billy Hayes vents his spleen on a treacherous Turk and a sadistic jailer who enjoys inflicting pain on foreigners. Midnight Express is not recommended for those who are repulsed by explicit screen violence. But for those who can watch such scenes, this vivid movie has the power of a scream in the night. And hopefully that scream will alert politicians and others to the plight of American youth still rotting in prisons around the world.