“Basket!”, “In-Nuccali!”, “Din x’inhi?.” This scene, featuring our very own Maltese language hit cinema screens on this day, 42 years ago i.e. 1978, as part of the classic ‘Midnight Express,’ which was filmed in Malta the year before, and which featured some Maltese names, with the most iconic one being one of Malta’s finest actors, with the instantly-recognisable voice, Joe Zammit Cordina!
Joe Zammit Cordina was listed in the credits, and read out his exchange with Brad David (as Billy Hayes), in a Turkish Airport. Joe was meant to say the lines in Turkish but, as his nephew, Henry Zammit Cordina (of L-Gharusa fame) once told The Times of Malta, he had blanked and it was then that Alan Parker just told Joe to say them in Maltese because ‘no one will understand anyway.’
Malta was quite the hub for foreign productions in the 60s and the 70s and Joe used to also provide casting services for these productions, being the only one on the island who offered this.
But back to that Airport scene. For many, this is probably one of the most notorious scenes in cinema as not only does it feature Maltese actors speaking their own language in a foreign big-budget feature film, at a time when subtitles weren’t really a thing, but according to the logic of the narrative, they were meant to be speaking Turkish!
Midnight Express features the beauty and the versatility of the Maltese Islands, as the ideal canvas for productions of this magnitude. Istanbul Airport, Joe’s scene, was filmed at Malta’s Old Airport in Luqa.
The souk, where Billy Hayes tries to give the authorities the slip when he’s taken to point out the dealer who sold him the drugs, was shot at the Valletta Market which was then situated on Merchants Street, with Hayes then making a run for it on St Paul’s Street.
The forbidding courtyards and overlooking balconies of the prison are those of Fort St Elmo (which has also famously appeared in Cutthroat Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and World War Z). Billy’s Trial was filmed in the beautiful cloisters of the Dominican Monastery in Rabat, and ‘Section 13 for the Criminally Insane’ was filmed at the majestic Mediterranean Conference Centre’s Sacra Infermeria.
Midnight Express is based on the real Billy Hayes’ autobiographical book bearing the same name. In the book, Hayes speaks about his experiences in and escape from a Turkish prison, after being convicted of smuggling hashish. He was one of the hundreds of US citizens in foreign jails serving drug charge sentences, following a drug-smuggling crackdown by foreign governments.