The plot usually calls for the hero to embody rugged American individualism as he endure a fascist police arrest, a biased court trial, and then to survive a brutal incarceration in a penal hell-hole that is infected with perverts and psychotic guards. The protagonist is always a Christ-like white American male, though in Franklin J. Schaffner's Papillion (1973), he is French yet filtered as American... or vice-versa. Women are seldom the central characters in these Darwinist depictions, unless we give consideration to those tawdry B-movies filled with scantly clad starlets with acting skills somewhere in the outer limits; such as in Gerardo de Leon's Women in Cages (1971) and Jack Hill's The Big Bird Cage (1972), both set in the Philippines.
Foremost among the cinematic history of presenting a bewildered American in legal trouble abroad is Billy Wilder's classic Witness for the Prosecution (1957) set in a British courtroom. The movie starred charming Tyrone Power as having been accused of murdering a rich British widow he was involved with. Not to give anything away in this otherwise excellent drama with superb acting, we are left with the impression the judicial system in Britain is supreme even if a "mockery" is made of it.
Such judicial fairness is non-existent in Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978), an incredibly dark and depressing melodrama supposedly based on a true story about an American tourist caught with hashish while traveling through Turkey. In clear violation of Turkey's laws, we are asked to identify with Billy Hayes, portrayed by Brad Davis, as we him through a depraved and hellish interment in a medieval-like Turkish prison. Arguably, Hayes/Davis jail experience might not that different from what inmates go though in any maximum security prison in the United States.
On a lower artistic scale but far more politically pretentious is Jon Avet's Red Corner (1997) set in the People's Republic of China. Similar to how the Turkish authorities were presented in Midnight Express and below the dignified portraits of law enforcement in Witness for the Prosecution, the Chinese are seen as crude, insensitive, alien, and xenophobic. The hero is Richard Gere, portraying a foreign television executive charged with murdering a woman found in his apartment. Small wonder; he wakes-up covered in her blood. In real life, Gere has been an out-spoken critic of the People's Republic treatment of the Dalai Lama. This one dimensional film is a clear political statement. Red Corner has the obligatory harsh police interrogation scene. Though not as nasty as in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005), the encounter is indicative of what many low-income minorities endure in America. Gere's assigned lawyer is Chinese and portrayed by Bai Ling. She is experienced but deemed vulnerable in keeping with a Eurocentric view of most Asian women.
The fiction vis-à-vis reality mentality as manifested in Britain, Turkey, and China present some interesting parallels (coincidental, but interesting none-the-less). For instance; the murder victim, Meredith Kercher, was a British citizen and Knox the American suspect as mirrored in Witness for the Prosecution. The crime scene is an apartment in Perugia, a town referred to as "small" as if to imply the inhabitants were too less sophisticated to mount a fair trial. The apartment was where Knox, her Italian boy-friend Raffaelel Sollecito, the victim Kercher, and the immigrant Rudy Guede (tried separately and convicted) reportedly smoked hashish pursuant to the killing. This is same drug responsible for Hayes' brutal incarceration in Midnight Express. Carlos Della Vesova and Luca Maori were assigned as Knox's defense lawyers, thus reflecting Bai Ling's status in Red Corner as well as Charles Laughton's in Witness for the Prosecution. Lawyers must be from the country where the criminal act was committed.
Art imitates life and vice-versa. Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell solicited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intercede on behalf of Knox as soon as the verdict was heard. Interestingly, the father of Billy Hayes also called on American politicians to intercede on his son's behalf in Midnight Express. As Hollywood continues to imagine or interpret the guilt or innocence of those charged with criminality on foreign soil, we should all be a privy to such help whether in our own country or abroad.
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