Thursday, January 30, 2014




One of the most memorably thrilling escape movies of the past half century is Alan Parker’s MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), written by Oliver Stone, starring the late Brad Davis, and based on a 1976 book by a young American, Billy Hayes, telling of his flight from a Turkish prison. Last night I had a chance to ask Mr. Hayes a question—to which I’ll return—about a scene in that film, some of which I still remember despite not having seen it in 35 years. This is because he’s currently starring at St. Luke’s Theatre in RIDING THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS WITH BILLY HAYES, a one-man play he wrote about his harrowing adventures.

Billy Hayes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The 67-year-old Mr. Hayes, who wrote two more books about his experiences, is slender and boyish, his once-blonde tresses a well-manicured gray. Energetic and direct, he vaguely resembles what 1950s singing idol Frankie Avalon might look like if he’d retained his teenage weight. After his escape he became a professional actor and director, so he’s perfectly suited to hold an audience’s attention for 70 intermissionless minutes, but his story is gripping enough that even if he were less charismatic it would mesmerize an audience for its duration. Designer Josh Iacovelli has provided him with a stool set against a neutral rust-colored background, and lit him subtly to vary the moods he creates. Wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a blue denim shirt, which he removes midway, Mr. Hayes, nicely directed by John Gould Rubin, tells his famous tale with friendly familiarity, using occasional expletives, vivid imagery, and a narrative that’s consistently clear and compelling. When he recalls moments of great danger he relives what happened with strong emotion and, like a master storyteller, creates riveting suspense and tension.

A product of the roiling 60s, Mr. Hayes left college, where he majored in journalism, to motorcycle around Europe, realized he could make good money smuggling hashish from Turkey by strapping it to his body, and then, on his fourth such attempt, was arrested before boarding a plane from Istanbul. This led to his incarceration, at first for four years and two months; then, as the end of his sentence came into sight, he had his sentence upped to 30 years, partly as a result of Pres. Nixon’s war on drugs. Seeing no other recourse, he plotted to ride the midnight express (a prison euphemism for escape) from the lower security prison he’d gotten himself transferred to on Imrali Island, stealing a dinghy, and rowing through a storm to freedom in Greece.

Mr. Hayes, who learned Turkish in prison, has a certain cocky charm that must have been very useful in navigating the tricky life of being a convicted drug dealer thrown into a cruddy cell and forced to find a way not only to survive but to keep his sanity and figure out a way to flee. He remembers the beatings he endured, the rats, the sex (he’s hetero but admits to a relationship with another male prisoner), the prison’s routine, food, marketplace culture, and bathing practices. We learn of his loneliness, the lesson he learns of the need to ignore the misery of others, his bribery of a prison doctor, and the survival tips he picked up from fellow prisoners. One of his most helpful outlets was yoga, which he praises for keeping him fit and mentally balanced, and which is still a mainstay of his life. He was able to maintain contact through letters with his family and girlfriend, and even to surreptitiously receive both money and LSD in his mail.

He talks a bit about how Parker’s movie differed from the real facts of the story, including how the searing speech Stone wrote for his courtroom scene in which he denounced the Turkish people was nothing like the speech he actually gave when he was sentenced to 30 years; his actual words were of forgiveness, he declares. The climactic escape itself is thrillingly told, from the dinghy crossing to the bus rides and hiking, much of it barefoot across what he later learned was land strewn with mines, until he made it to Greece. There he was happy to offer the Greeks information they were seeking about the Turks in return for lenient treatment.

Once reviled by the Turkish government, Mr. Hayes, who never denied his guilt, ultimately was welcomed back in 2007. His argument was with the prison system, not the Turkish people, he insists. But, because of the film, he long remained a highly controversial figure in that country.

I mentioned at the start a question I had about the movie. It concerned a scene in which the Hayes character, terribly abused by a hulking Turkish guard, kills him when the guard’s head is smashed against a coat hook attached to a wall. Mr. Hayes said there actually was such a guard, but that he never killed him (or anybody else), and that the scene was dramatic fiction.  But he said there was another man, beaten brutally by a guard who crudely insulted eight members of his family as he did so. One day, after being released, he came up to that guard in a public space and shot him eight times, once for each insult. For that, he said, the man got 15 years, while he, Hayes, had been sentenced to 30 years for four pounds of pot.

We can be grateful, though, that he rode the midnight express and is still around to tell us about it.