In the slammer: Orientalism, Sadomasochism, and the Prison in "Midnight Express"

When I last saw Midnight Express (1978, dir. Alan Parker) roughly twelve years ago, it was heavily edited on cable.  So it was only just this week that I really saw it for the first time.  Pauline Kael noted that the film, with its scenes of sexual torture and its sadistic Turkish prison guards, was like something out of Sade, and it’s true: though ostensibly a prison-break movie aimed at men (one can imagine it running on AMC), it has less in common with The Great Escape than with, say, Caged.  That’s to say that Midnight Express is a homoerotic version of a women-in-prison movie.  As Susie Bright points out in The Celluloid Closet, women-in-prison movies operate under the assumption that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is that she will lose her femininity: that, behind bars, she’ll become a butch.  Midnight Express operates under the same premise, adapted for men: it follows a clean-cut, boyishly handsome American college kid, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) as he suffers baroquely exotic abuses at a Turkish prison after being arrested for smuggling.  Billy’s seemingly inviolable masculinity pales beside the grotesquely beefy Turkish guards who beat and rape him.  Compared with their massive bald heads, bulging eyes, and monstrous sneers, he looks petite and femme, the opposite of butch—which is to say, a “bitch.” 

The sexual abuse is posed against softer, more consensual same-sex contact, though—as when Billy and a Swedish cellmate exchange a tender kiss (but no more) in the shower.  The image fills with steam; Giorgio Moroder’s electronic score goes into a kind of bliss-out; we’re suddenly in soft-core territory (as distinct from the rough trade/S&M feel of the torture scenes). 

In this closed world of men, the film’s lone female character, Billy’s girlfriend (Irene Miracle), comes to stand not only for femaleness and the heterosexuality that Billy has temporarily been denied, but also freedom and America—everything outside the Gothic, claustrophobic, homosexual excesses of the prison, which (by virtue of the prison’s being Turkish) are also overlaid with the thrill of Orientalism.  Heterosexuality/freedom/America on the one side, homosexuality/imprisonment/Turkey on the other.  It’s significant that the film ends with an image of Miracle and Davis kissing, meant to replace the image of the male-male kiss in the prison shower earlier.  The implications are obvious: Davis has made it back to freedom, to America, and to heterosexuality. 

The queer appeal of this film—which is otherwise rather dumb, in addition to being racist and ethnocentric—is so strong, though, that it struck a chord with me even at a very early age, on an almost unconscious level.  I remember experiencing a frisson of pleasure when first seeing the image below, in an excerpt from the film in the documentary Terror in the Aisles (1984).  Brad Davis’ erotic tribulations in Midnight Express are the gay male equivalent of Linda Blair and Sybil Danning in the shower together in Chained Heat: a true guilty pleasure.  Original rating: ***  New rating: **½ 


  1. Me too! As someone who was one of the thousands of people being watched and harrassed by Hoover, I've had a "grudge" about this film, as much as I like a good Freudian work-over. Everyone who ever looked at their "redacted file" knows JEH was a repressed s.o.b......but he didn't want your sympathy or understanding. I would like a movie that held his feet to the fire a bit more. The Roy Cohn character in "Angels" did that for me.

    Thanks for mentionning me!.... Doing Celluloid Closet was one of my favorite "assignments" ever.

  2. Oh drat. I meant to post this on the J.Edgar Hoover post. Feel free to delete. I read the past three months of your postings! May I leave you my email? Would like to correspond on another film topic. susie@susiebright.com