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Oliver Stone Apologizes to Turkey

Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, the Oliver Stone–scripted Midnight Express — which featured images of appalling conditions and brutality in a Turkish prison — was one of the most powerful. And now, just days prior to the European Union’s decision whether to launch membership talks with Turkey, Stone has apologized for offending the Turks.

"It’s true I overdramatized the script," Stone told reporters in Istanbul. "But the reality of Turkish prisons at the time was also referred to . . . by various human rights associations." Stone had been afraid of visiting Turkey since the release of Midnight Express (1978), he said, because of the effect it had on the country. "For years, I heard that Turkish people were angry with me, and I didn’t feel safe there. The culture ministry gave me a guarantee that I would be safe, so I feel comfortable now."

Midnight Express was adapted from the book by Billy Hayes, an American who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, and eventually escaped. Stone also did a week’s worth of interviews with Hayes in a hotel room after he’d read the book.

"That was fun," Hayes recalled, "like being in a washing machine on tilt. And while some people find him a bit much, I love Oliver’s energy."

I contacted Hayes to get his reaction to Stone’s recent statement. "How," I asked him, "was the script overdramatized?"

"My biggest problem with the screenplay and the film was that you didn’t see a single good Turk," said Hayes, "so the overall impression was that all Turks are like those depicted in the film. And, of course, this is not true. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the prison was brutal and the legal system hypocritical, but that can be said of almost any country, particularly, and unfortunately, ours. Prison guards are not necessarily the cream of any society."

Did your biting the tongue off a fellow prisoner actually occur?

"The tongue-biting was the filmmaker’s way of having the informer get his dramatically just reward. Actually, I tried to bash that sonbitch’s head in but the guards stopped me. I don’t have a problem with the intent of that scene, but it’s so strange now to remember that kind of up-close and personal violence."

What would you say was most offensive to the Turks?

"The most offensive scene for the Turks was Billy’s speech in the courtroom calling them all ‘a nation of pigs,’ etc. In fact, when I spoke to the court, knowing I was having my sentence changed to life, I was trying to hold on to my shredding sanity and wanted to affect these people who were taking my life away but really knew nothing about me as a person. I said something like, ‘I’ve been in your jail four years now and if you sentence me to more prison I can’t agree with you, all I can do is forgive you . . .’ It affected them. The judge told me his hands were tied. They all looked upset. Then they sentenced me to life, which the kindly judge reduced to 30 years. Thanks. I think. Anyway, Oliver wanted to know how I could forgive people who had just taken my life away. I told him about trying to maintain my balance. He asked how I felt the next morning after sentencing. I told him I was furious. So he wrote that courtroom speech."

Was there anything that you thought should have been included in the film that was omitted?

"What was missing from the film was what I found in jail — a sense of self and the trite but true notion of appreciating each moment. I discovered my reason for being, which is simply to love. It took a lot of banging my hard head against the wall, literally and figuratively, to realize this truth. They didn’t deal with it in the film but that made the entire experience worth it."

Tell me about Midnight Return.

"It’s a follow-up book about the really weird part of my prison experience — returning to the U.S. and becoming a little mini-celebrity, with all that entails. Hope to get it published one of these days."

Can you give me an example of mini-celebrity weirdness?

"February 20th and 24th in 1980 I was mentioned in the Steve Canyon comic strip. From the bizarre to the surreal. How weird is that?"

Oh, yeah? Well, I was mentioned in Pogo and Zippy the Pinhead. You get used to it. Anyway, now I’ll start waiting for Oliver Stone to apologize to Greece for Alexander.

Paul Krassner’s latest CD is The Zen Bastard Rides Again. He has been nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award for his liner notes accompanying the 6-CD Lenny Bruce anthology Let the Buyer Beware. His Web site is Paulkrassner.com.

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