Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. United Kingdom/USA/Turkey, 1978. Columbia Pictures, Casablanca Filmworks. Screenplay by Oliver Stone, based on the book by Billy Hayes, William Hoffer. Cinematography by Michael Seresin. Produced by Alan Marshall, David Puttnam. Music by Giorgio Moroder. Production Design by Geoffrey Kirkland. Costume Design by Milena Canonero. Film Editing by Gerry Hambling. Academy Awards 1978. Cannes Film Festival 1978. Golden Globe Awards 1978. Toronto International Film Festival 1978.
A textbook example of the kind of movie that can be brilliant even if it is also total bullshit. Alan Parker directs an Oliver Stone script that adapts Billy Hayes’ account of spending five years in a Turkish prison for trying to take a whole body’s worth of heroin out of the country, arrested just before boarding the plane that would have brought him home. Facing the possibility of a life sentence, Hayes (Brad Davis) becomes a part of the gritty ecosystem of his prison, developing friendships with fellow tourists in a similar situation (Randy Quaid and John Hurt doing great work as eccentrics), working with his lawyer to get himself out and then planning an escape when the legal route starts to look dim. Davis handles his first leading role with strength and class, while the superb direction and editing keep a very dark and heavy story moving swiftly through years of hardship without ever feeling weighed down by unnecessary detail. There’s an obsession with brutal masculinity and xenophobia that strikes a lot of false notes, however, as if Parker is worried that the real story isn’t violent enough to be entertaining and that the Turks need to be seen as villains if the audience is going to be kept in their seats. In real life, Hayes didn’t reject the lover who came onto him in the shower like he does here, he actually had an affair with a male inmate for a long time while behind bars, and he never bit anyone’s tongue out of their mouth or kill a guard who tortured him. The film was banned in Turkey and has rightfully been loathed there ever since for having such cardboard portrayals of its citizens, and even Hayes expressed disapproval and said that his time in prison was not nearly as extreme as Parker makes it out to be. Valid as these complaints are, there’s no denying it’s a great work that is compelling to watch right to the very last scene, and the cast is uniformly excellent.