Video: Long way home

Prison movies for the nervous traveler

| March 11, 2004

Once, while Interrailing through Italy, I mistakenly purchased a shoe-polishing brush, thinking it was a toothbrush, and used it several times before I found out what it was. Had I read more Italian, I would have recognized the words “shoe” and “polish” on the package, but more importantly, “real badger bristles.” Even with the Aquafresh, it was like brushing my teeth with something I found under a monkey-house. I still get queasy when I have to sniff a badger.

Believe it or not, ghastlier things than even that befall Americans abroad all the time. Waiters insult them, terrorists kidnap them, sweet old ladies give them bad directions to the national museum and walk away cackling. So, in honor of Americans abroad whose adventures don’t always end with the self-satisfied veni, vidi, [whatever the Latin is for “we got super baked”] quality of Eurotrip [reviewed in this issue] and a million other escapades recounted daily by globetrotting lunkheads, the theme we offer you this week is: Americans in Prison.

Midnight Express (dir. Alan Parker, 1978)
The butt of innumerable travel jokes and a riveting object lesson in why to avoid traveling with Turkish sky-candy, Alan Parker’s ethically squishy 1978 film tells the (mostly true, but exaggerated) story of William “Billy” Hayes, an American traveler apprehended with hashish by Turkish authorities at the Istanbul airport in 1970. It’s ethically squishy because it makes Hayes (played by Brad Davis, a former addict who died in 1991 of AIDS-related health problems) out to be a hero. You feel for the guy, especially when a higher court decides to make an example of him by overturning his four-year prison sentence and handing him a 30-year mandatory minimum, but it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself—he even admits he did it for the money. The smuggling, that is. Hayes doesn’t make it any easier on himself by spewing racist invective at the presiding judges, either. Midnight Express sends some very strange messages, particularly in the scene where Hayes and a gentle Swedish prisoner strip to their skivvies, oil each other up and practice a Pilates routine. Huh?

Born American
(dir. Renny Harlin, 1986)

Three Americans (two jocks and one nerd whom the jocks pick on incessantly) hunting deer in Finland decide to cross the Russo-Finnish border despite the enormous signs posted everywhere, in English, telling them which side of the Cold War to stay on if they know what’s good for them. They bring enough guns and archery equipment to annihilate the detachment of Soviet paratroopers who apprehend them for a few questions. At one point, while the threesome muse on what makes America great, a flaming man runs by in a manner that can only be described as “casual.” And this is just the first 15 minutes—long before they’re taken to a Siberian prison camp and forced into a life-sized game of chess. So it’s basically just like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago without all that dull reading. “Makes Red Dawn look like Apocalypse Now,” writes one chagrined online reviewer. One of the stupidest movies made by anybody about anything ever.

Return to Paradise
(dir, Joseph Ruben, 1998)

A modern retelling of the Damon and Pythias fable, and rather better than you’d expect from a low-rent production starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix. It’s still preposterous, though: Phoenix, Vaughn and David Conrad play a trio of Americans who think they’ve stumbled into a paradise of cold beer, cheap hash and pliant native women on the beaches of Malaysia. They travel around having a blast together. When it’s time to say goodbye, Vaughn and Conrad head back to New York but Phoenix stays on in Malaysia to volunteer at an orangutan rehabilitation center. But before he can, the Malaysian police bust him with enough hash to convict him for trafficking, which carries the death penalty in Malaysia. Some of the hash belonged to Vaughn and Conrad, who have to decide whether to save their friend’s life by shouldering part of the responsibility—and serving three years each in a rathole Malay prison—or turn their backs. The premise is a bit hard to swallow, and the dialogue kind of hokey, but the actors go at it with relish, giving the movie a comfortable, lived-in feel. Could’ve been better, could’ve been a lot worse. The romantic subplot is inexcusable.

Don’t Drink the Water
(dir. Woody Allen, 1994)

Not prison, exactly, but close: When a vacationing caterer from New Jersey snaps a photo behind the Iron Curtain, the secret police mistake him and his family for American spies. The Hollanders seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy where the ambassador has left his son, a failed diplomat (Michael J. Fox), at the helm. Neuroses intensify. Together, the Hollanders monopolize all phone lines; Mrs. Hollander (Julie Kavner) waxes floors and feverishly irons; Mr. Hollander (Allen), eschewing the chef’s snails, demands Chinese take-out; the daughter turns her attention to the ambassador’s son. Foreign relations and any semblance of order within the embassy quickly deteriorate.

Brokedown Palace
(dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1999)

Similar to Return to Paradise in its (justifiably) paranoid view of foreign drug laws and legal systems, Brokedown Palace stars earthy Claire Danes and prissy Kate Beckinsale as a pair of young American tourists in Thailand who get caught with heroin at the Bangkok airport. They’ve been set up, of course, but tell that to the intractable judges and vicious prison guards who seem delighted to make an example out of the case and beat the girls with truncheons on their outstretched palms. Bill Pullman co-stars as a lawyer who specializes in these sorts of things. He speaks Thai, too!

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