USA Release date: 6th October 1978
Watched on Sky+ Sunday 9th September 2012.
PLEASE NOTE: THERE MAY BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.
I first saw this film many years ago and I have to admit I wasn’t all that impressed with it back then. So I thought I’d give it another look having a much wider experience of the world of cinema and the world in general for that matter. I think this time I had a greater appreciation of it but at the same time I could still see things I didn’t like so much. Here’s a very brief summary then I’ll explain.
The film charts the true story of how Billy Hayes ends up in a Turkish prison for smuggling hashish. He is picked up at the airport and found to be in possession of two kilos of the stuff. Wishing to make an example of him, the authorities throw Billy into the brutal Shagmahr prison in Istanbul. Having been beaten by the cruel head of the prison guard, Hamidou, he is befriended by a fellow American, Jimmy Booth, an Englishman, Max and a Swede, Erich. They all have varying sentences but all live in the hope of getting out someday. A kind of trustee, Rifki, sells them tea and blankets and stuff, if the price is right, and he is universally hated because he’s always snitching to the guards. As time passes Billy never becomes accustomed to prison life and despite the efforts of the American Consul, his father and a local corrupt lawyer he finds himself stuck there with a four year sentence. Wishing to make a further example of him the prosecutor appeals to a higher court and Billy ends up being sentenced to thirty years! He now has no option but to try to escape. I will leave it there as I don’t want to enrage the Spoiler Police any more then I have to.
Very well made with some great visuals on show; you really get a feel for the place. I can’t say I was enamoured with the music though, yes there were a few Turkish themes but then there was this electronic music that seemed to cut right across the grain. How the music won the Oscar in 1979 I will never know! All the performances were very good; Brad Davis does a decent job in the lead roll as Billy Hayes without being particularly outstanding. Randy Quaid did some great scenery chewing as Jimmy Booth, John Hurt was excellent (as ever) and Max and Norbert Weisser did a decent job as Erich. Of the bad guys, I thought Paolo Bonacelli did a very good job as the slippery Rifki and Paul L. Smith did a great job as the brutal head guard Hamidou. Finally honourable mentions go to both Irene Miracle as Billy’s girlfriend, Susan and Mike Kellin as Billy’s father.
For a film that won two Oscars; ‘Best Music, Original Score’ and ‘Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium’; I found it a little disappointing. Other nominations included ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ for John Hurt which I thought was well deserved. I think what lets it down is the performance of Brad Davis in the central role. He doesn’t quite carry it off and, because the whole film hangs on his part, it suffers because of it. It’s almost like he’s trying just a little bit too hard at times and you can see it on the screen. Even so, it’s an intriguing tale with some nice touches; for example the use of the sound of Billy’s heartbeat as he’s going through customs as the beginning of the film; very effective. Over all, well worth a look but not particularly for the central role; there is still much to admire though, hence my score.
SteelMonster’s verdict: RECOMMENDED
My score: 7.8/10
IMDb Score: 7.6/10 (based on 33,564 votes at the time of going to press).
MetaScore: No Data: (Based on 0 critic reviews provided by Metacritic.com at the time of going to press).
Rotten Tomatoes ‘Audience’ Score: 62/100 ‘Want to See’ (based on 29,228 user ratings counted at the time of going to press).
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Tex: Boy oh boy, you picked a bad time to fly, Billy. They're guerrillas all over the place blowing up planes and all. They hit four planes in four days. But I guess you young people don't read the news anymore. That, and with our people back home kicking up a shitstorm about the flow of heroin from Turkey...
Billy Hayes: I didn't have heroin. It was just a little hashish.
Tex: That doesn't matter. A drug's a drug.
Billy Hayes: It was only two kilos.
Tex: It doesn't matter if it was two kilos or 200 kilos. The Turks love catching foreigners. They want to show the rest of the world that they're fighting the drug trade.
Billy Hayes: Who are you? What's your name?
Tex: That's not important.
Billy Hayes: Are you with the American consulate here in Istanbul?
Tex: Something like that.
Jimmy: So... Billy, what are you in for? Hash?
Billy Hayes: Yeah.
Jimmy: Where'd they get you?
Billy Hayes: The airport... trying to get home.
Jimmy: You go through customs?
Billy Hayes: Yeah, I was busted right at the plane.
Jimmy: Aw, man that's heavy. That's very heavy.
Erich: It's bad if they get you for smuggling, but if they make it possession, the sentence is lighter. The best thing for you to do, Billy, is try to make bail. If you make bail, you're free. You can easily get yourself a fake passport on the black market, or get yourself across the border into Greece.
Jimmy: Dream on, Erich. They'll never grant bail to foreigners whom may be a flight risk.
Erich: But if you argue in court about you being innocent...
Jimmy: This ain't the good ol' USA! This is Turkey, man! It's a fuckin' accident here if you're innocent! There ain't nobody here that is innocent!
Billy Hayes: [voiceover] To the Turks, everything is "shurla burla", which means "like this, like that". You never know what will happen. All foreigners are "ayip", they're considered dirty. So is homosexuality, it's a big crime here, but most of them do it every chance they get. There are about thousand things that are "ayip", for instance, you can stab or shoot somebody below the waist but not above because that's intent to kill. So everyone runs around stabbing everyone else in the ass. That's what they call Turkish revenge. I know it must all sound crazy to you, but this place is crazy.
Billy Hayes: What is a crime? What is punishment? It seems to vary from time to time and place to place. What's legal today is suddenly illegal tomorrow because society says it's so, and what's illegal yesterday is suddenly legal because everybody's doin' it, and you can't put everybody in jail. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm just saying that's the way it is. But I've spent 3 1/2 years of my life in your prison, and I think I've paid for my error, and if it's your decision today to sentence me to more years, then I...
[he becomes overcome with anger]