Advert

Prison break at Fort St Elmo

Midnight Express has lost none of its potency and brutality 30 years after its release. Based on a true story, it turns out to be a highly-emotional experience particularly with its haunting music score. Justin Camilleri goes back in time to Fort St Elmo where most of the action was filmed.

1978 was the year that The Deer Hunter won five Oscars; Halloween scared our socks off, setting the benchmark for the slasher movie, audiences danced to the great tunes of Grease and we believed a man could fly in Superman. However, one film that remained in our collective consciousness was Midnight Express.

The film is based on the harrowing true story of Billy Hayes, a young American tourist condemned to a Turkish prison for his futile attempt to smuggle hashish out of the country. He is faced with a legal system hell bent on making an example out of him as they sentence him to 30 years.

From its opening emphatic heartbeat sound, to the climactic finale, 30 years on, the film is still undeniably riveting from the word go, with both the lead's acting and Alan Parker's direction being so utterly compelling.

At its time of release, this was the first film to portray a young vulnerable man as the inmate, as previous prison pictures usually depicted macho, tough men being imprisoned, as in Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

Midnight Express proved to be a surprise hit for the producers and director. As executive producer Peter Guber said in the 30th anniversary DVD edition interview, "From the very beginning the project was deemed controversial by the chairman of Columbia Pictures as he was persuading me not to make the film".

To top all this Midnight Express had a first-time studio director in the form of British director Alan Parker, first-time screenwriter Oliver Stone and a virtual unknown Brad Davis in the lead.

Lord David Puttnam described the casting of the film as anxiety provoking, mainly because the studio was keen on Richard Gere to play Billy Hayes. "Richard's sense of insecurity about the part undermined Alan's confidence about the screenplay," he said.

Gere eventually lost the role due to his lack of belief in such a project which is ironic as in 1997 he would star in a Midnight Express clone set in a Chinese prison entitled Red Corner.

With Gere out of the picture the casting producers were left with the headache of finding their lead man. They had already seen Sam Bottoms, Dennis Quaid and Brad Davis in auditions and were particularly taken with Quaid's and Davis's performances, and admitted that it was a tough decision to make. Davis was eventually chosen as according to Lord Puttnam "Brad had a vulnerability that Dennis did not portray".

Another problem was choosing the location in which to shoot the picture. They went to five different countries until eventually settling for Malta. Here they found an unlikely ally, as Lord Puttnam describes reminiscing: "We ended up in Malta because it was run by an extraordinary, eccentric man called Dom Mintoff, who wasn't going to be told by the Turks about anything, so in fact we were all remarkably welcomed in Malta."

Producer Malcolm Scerri Ferrante said: "Not since 1953's Malta Story had there been such a film like Midnight Express that made such good use of Valletta's locations."

Indeed, the choice for the prison was to be the British Army Storage facility, situated in Lower St Elmo, Valletta. This proved to be ideal as it resembled the rugged prison that they were looking for. The crew encountered some problems in the first two days of shooting when they had to re-shoot everything they shot in those two days.

Lord Puttnam admitted that after a while he was getting depressed because he was going to work every day in a prison, coupled with the fact that there was very little source of entertainment back then, except for two restaurants and the bar at the Hilton. He also got temporarily fired by Colombia Pictures because of his decision to insert what they called a gay scene. But was in fact showing Hayes in the prison shower when another inmate approaches him and attempts to kiss him. Lord Puttman was eventually re-hired when the dust settled and the scene made it to the final cut.

Apart from Fort St Elmo, other parts of Malta are visibly noticeable. In one of the scenes when Hayes is being chased by the police he can be seen running through St Paul Street (parallel to the Valletta market) next to a "barber" sign that is still there till this very day. The scene where Hayes was captured in the airport as he is about to catch a plane back to the US loaded with hashish was shot in the old Luqa Airport. The authorities had actually closed down the airport for two days, allowing them to film the necessary shoots.

Undoubtedly, Maltese who have seen the film for the umpteenth time, would recognise that one of the most tense scenes features the late Maltese actor Joe Zammit Cordina as a nasty looking customs officer, who with a mischievous grin, taunts Billy to take off his glasses (Neħħi n-nuċċali!) revealing a petrified soul.

Yvonne Zammit Cordina (wife of the late Joe) recalls her husband choosing the extras for the airport and the prison scenes. "Indeed the film was a long shoot and Joseph put in endless hours seeing to Alan Parker and the producers' demands."

One can also spot Tony Cassar Darien and Joe's brother Harry Zammit Cordina stamping the passports in the opening heart thumping airport scene. In one blink-and-you-miss-it scene when Billy is being chased by the police one can also spot the late comedian Johnny Navarro dressed in Turkish clothing. Although actor Charles Thake does not have a speaking part, his presence can be felt in the court scene during Billy's trial.

When asked how he felt to be part of the cast, Mr Thake says in tongue-in-cheek manner that he nearly got fired as he was telling a joke to his fellow actors and the room erupted in laughter. Parker was not best pleased and asked them to be quiet and concentrate. To the surprise of many, but even mentally ill people took part in the prison's scenes, Simon Tonna who played one of the inmates humorously tells of the time when in between takes they used to go up to Valletta centre and since they were wearing the same costumes they could not tell them apart and they used to get away with taking the mick with passers by.

Midnight Express clearly belongs to Il-Beltin, the residents of Valletta. Several residents who are in their mid-40s are inundated with light-hearted banter of the film shoot. One particular resident who wishes to be unnamed recalls the scene in which an acquaintance of his delivered one of the Maltese lines coupled with French during the duration of the particular scene: "Sigarrett, sigarrett s'il vous plaît." It is also important to note that during the scene where Billy is being driven through Istanbul all the Beltin extras, most of which were children, were clad in Turkish clothing.

It is unfathomable how Midnight Express did not make it in Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen's book, Based on a True Story - Fact and Fantasy in 100 movies as till this day the film is yet another example as to how Hollywood comes under attack for twisting the truth, blurring the facts, simply to have a more dramatic effect.

A case in point is when Lord Puttnam stated that even the Turkish officials in the beginning of the film aren't in fact speaking Turkish but rather a hotch potch of European languages.

Something that is perhaps strange to hear is the Maltese language being spoken.

Also during filming, some torture scenes were added to create a more sombre mood in the prison sequences. Relations between the Turks and the Americans deter-iorated considerably after the trial scene where a ballistic Hayes starts screaming: "You are a country of pigs" which is even more insulting to an Islamic country like Turkey.

Even though the picture was banned from Turkey (understandably as not one single Turkish character is shown in a favourable light) Midnight Express did not do well in Germany, mainly because in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a huge influx of Turkish migrants.

The film's standout which seems to take a life of its own is the totally synthesised score by Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder. At first the studio bigwigs were very sceptical about a disco themed soundtrack; of course Moroder proved them wrong and went to scoop the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Radio 101's Eric Montfort said: "Giorgio Moroder's superb music in Midnight Express paved the way for synthesised music to be inserted in film soundtracks since it was the first electric soundtrack to win an Oscar".

Just as Midnight Express was a milestone for Giorgio Moroder as it moulded his career in composing soundtracks for motion pictures the likes of Scarface and Flashdance, sadly, the same cannot be said about Brad Davis, as his career never lifted off after Midnight Express. Despite winning a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year, Davis would never repeat the success he garnered through Midnight Express and he subsequently retreated to supporting roles in films such as Chariots of Fire or acted in a string of TV series such as Roots and A Rumor of War.

Interestingly enough, Brad's brother Gene would come to Malta in 1987 to film another picture filmed on location in Valletta - Black Eagle. Not many people know this but Brad would return to Malta in 1989 to film a commercial on Genetic fingerprinting. Renowned Maltese actor Manuel Cauchi recalls working with the actor at the old prison of Kordin where surprise, surprise Davis played another inmate which goes to show that sometimes you can't help being typecast. In what was a very low profile shoot, Mr Cauchi remembers how professional the actor was and that he would never have guessed that Davis would subsequently die of Aids two years later.

Midnight Express launched Oliver Stone's career in more ways than one as he not only became a successful screenwriter but honed his talents to become an acclaimed director. The film set the blueprint for things to come for director Alan Parker as he caught the eye of the Academy and was bestowed with his first nomination for best director.

Thirty years on, Midnight Express is more alive than ever as it still evokes an element of timelessness and that the plight for minor crimes in foreign countries is still more riveting than ever before. Furthermore, the film boosted Malta's credential as a film location, especially Valletta and its bastions that proved to be the perfect portrayal of captivity. Needless to say this film is very close to the hearts of the Maltese that were involved in it, as it evokes nostalgia and a good old trip down memory lane.

■ The 30th anniversary screening of Midnight Express is being held at the Old University Courtyard, St Paul Street, Valletta as part of the Evenings on Campus in collaboration with KRS on Friday at 8.45 p.m. A short discussion will be held before and after the screening. Anybody who was involved in the film is welcome to participate. More information may be obtained by phone on 9905 2482.


Advert
Comments not loading? We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox with javascript turned on.
Comments powered by Disqus  
Advert
Advert