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Malta: Catching the Midnight Express

A daring escape from a harrowing Turkish prison

VALLETTA, Malta — When I was a young man, I had three career ambitions:  Professional baseball player, professional tennis player, and international drug smuggler.

It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have the talent for the first two vocations.  That left the third option as the only viable choice.  It was lucrative and involved a lot of intrigue, travel to exotic places and adventure.  Plus, you didn’t have to hit a curveball.

Then I saw the movie “Midnight Express.”  Suddenly, the prospect of taping blocks of hashish to my chest and trying to sneak past immigration guards at airports in Middle Eastern countries didn’t seem so appealing.

Like Billy Hayes – whose real-life experience as a drug smuggler was depicted in the 1978 movie — I’m not the type who would likely do well in a Turkish prison.

Indeed, that is one of my favorite movies of all-time.  I own exactly two movies on DVD. “Midnight Express” is one of them (“The Godfather” is the other).

So when I had recently visited the Mediterranean island of Malta where “Midnight Express” was filmed, I couldn’t wait to see the place where this iconic movie was shot.

Malta’s Fort St. Elmo, where parts of the movie “Midnight Express” were filmed.

That led me to Fort St. Elmo, located in Malta’s picturesque capital city of Valletta.  The movie’s producers had wanted to film in Istanbul, where the real-life story of Billy Hayes’ imprisonment had taken place.  But they were denied by Turkish authorities, who weren’t too crazy about how the Turks were portrayed in the script.  Malta was chosen as an alternate location and the prison scenes were filmed entirely at Fort St. Elmo.

So my friend Henry and I took the bus into Valletta and had no trouble spotting Fort St. Elmo, which dates back to the 1500s and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

The prison yard depicted in the movie “Midnight Express” inside Fort St. Elmo in Malta.  

Problem was, the fort is now undergoing a major renovation and is closed to the public (The World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration).

Like Billy Hayes before me, I wasn’t going to let the law – or any construction work — stand in my way.  I found an open gate manned by a security guard and – without asking permission – walked inside the fort and started looking around.

Then I saw it.  There was the prison yard that had doubled as Turkey’s notorious Sağmalcılar Prison.  And it looked just as I had remembered it in the movie.  It was as if I could see Brad Davis, Randy Quaid and John Hurt standing on their second-floor balcony overlooking the yard plotting their escape.  One floor above them, I imagined the sleazy snitch Rifki was peddling his over-priced tea.

I pulled out my camera to take a photo.  Just as I did so, the security guard started yelling.  He was speaking Maltese, but I didn’t have to speak the language to figure out by his tone that he didn’t approve of my presence.  I kept hearing the word “Joey.”  I figured it was either a Maltese profanity, or perhaps I looked like some guy he knew named Joey. (I later asked my hotel clerk, who told me “Joey” is used by the Maltese when they don’t know someone’s name, sort of like Americans would use the name “Buddy.”)

It was at this point when I remembered something a professional photographer had once told me:  “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”

The author after catching the “Midnight Express” in Malta.

So I stood firm and snapped my photo.  Just like Billy Hayes more than 30 years ago, I had risked everything and thumbed my nose at the local authorities.  Only unlike Billy, I got away with it.  And I didn’t even have to kill a prison warden who was about to rape me. I simply walked out the gate.  Yes, the guard cut loose with a few profanities as I exited the fort.  And I had to deal with Henry teasingly calling me “Joey” the rest of the week.

But my camera was tucked safely away in my pocket.   To me, the digital image of the movie’s set was far more valuable than what 50 kilos of hashish could fetch at an Amsterdam coffee shop.

After a bit of subterfuge and stress, my mission had been accomplished. I had caught the Midnight Express in Malta.

© 2013 Dan Fellner


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