Alan Parker has directed the film as if he were a sniper: you never know when you're going to get hit next, but from the first moments you know you're being aimed at. The opening, with Hayes taping hash to his chest only to be apprehended at the airport, must have looked like standard stuff in Oliver Stone's script, but on screen it's unadulterated adrenalin, filmed with fast cuts timed in counterpoint to the sound of Hayes' pounding heart. [25 Oct 1978]
Some of the performances (Hurt, Davis) give it an illusion of depth, but it's mostly expert in avoiding moral resonance and ambiguity: everything is satisfyingly clear-cut, just as every shot and every cut are geared to instant emotional impact. Political, moral and aesthetic problems arise when you try to superimpose the film on the 'truth' it purports to represent. As a head-banging thriller, though, it makes some of Hollywood's hoariest stereotypes seem good as new, and it panders to its audience's worst instincts magnificently.
Midnight Express is a sordid and ostensibly true story about a young American busted [in 1970] for smuggling hash in Turkey and his subsequent harsh imprisonment and later escape. Cast, direction and production are all very good, but it’s difficult to sort out the proper empathies from the muddled and moralizing screenplay which, in true Anglo-American fashion, wrings hands over alien cultures as though our civilization is absolutely perfect.
In Parker's hands, Billy's story has become a virtuoso horror show-an exercise in emotional manipulation designed not merely to arouse chills but to turn the audience into avengers. Despite the remarkably controlled, honestly conveyed performance of Davis, Billy finally seems far less vivid than his prison friends-Randy Quaid's highly combustible American roughneck, the superb John Hurt's strung-out English junkie. Parker captures their camaraderie well, but he fails to convey any sense of day-to-day prison life-so keen is he to get to the assaultive highlights. [16 Oct 1978, p.76]
Gary ArnoldWashington Post
Midnight Express is an outrageously sensationalistic movie version of a non-fiction cautionary tale, Billy Hays' account of his imprisonment in Turkey after being convicted for drug smuggling. Parker has upset the book's delicate sense of balance. He uses Hays' dilemma as a springboard for sensationalism, especially sustained depictions of brutality and hysteria. Midnight Express sets a new standard in shamelessness. [28 Oct 1978, p.B6]