Brokedown Palace – directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1999
Midnight Express – directed by Alan Parker, 1978
In Brokedown Palace, we’re back in Thailand, with two more Americans seeking escape from what they know of Western Civilization. This time the drama involves two young women, fresh out of high school, who decide to spend their summer vacation in Thailand because it’s cheaper than Hawaii and way more exotic. They’re game for almost anything except telling their parents where they’re going.
In the Land of Smiles, it’s all smiles for the good-looking blonde Alice (Claire Danes) and the good-looking brunette Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) — until they are arrested as drug smugglers.
Of course, Alice and Darlene are not really drug smugglers. They’re typical American girls in the mold of Cyndi Lauper who just want to have fun. Leaving their roach-infested hostel, they pretend to be guests at a posh resort, ordering poolside cocktails that cost more than they have on hand. Mai bpen rai. No problem for our girls gone wild. A charming Australian software designer bails them out. Before long, he’s making Goo Goo Doll eyes at the ingenues, and offering to take them both on a jaunt to Hong Kong. Unlike the American girls on a lark, the charming Australian is a drug smuggler, and when the girls arrive for their flight to Hong Kong, they are the ones packing six kilos of heroin in their bags.
For the next 60 minutes of the film, there’s no smiling as the Americans are charged, interrogated and jailed in Thai-language proceedings they can’t understand. We see them as innocently unwitting smugglers, dumber than a mule. But the Thai court system sees them as guilty and sentences each to 33 years in a harsh women’s prison nicknamed Brokedown Palace.
The New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden hit it on the nail: “In Brokedown Palace, Claire Danes embodies an all-too believable, contemporary version of ‘The Ugly American.’” Rather than give the girls a pass for their naivete, Holden sees Alice as spoiled and selfish. He notes that in seeking her own instant gratification, she takes defiant pride in being compulsive and dishonest.=
Alice is the face of the new Ugly American. Unfortunately for the girls, teenaged petulance and tantrums may work in Bloomington but they don’t work in Bangkok. As Holden concludes in his review, being “a willfully ignorant ugly American abroad” can have serious consequences.
The efforts of Darlene’s blustery upper middle class Midwestern parents to free her are toothless. They try to get her out of her Asian jam with help — and very little of it — from a U.S. Embassy flunkey who seems more eager to please Thai officialdom than free Americans from prison. Finally we meet Henry “Hank the Yankee” Greene, a greedy Bangkok-based American lawyer played by Bill Pullman. Unscrupulous as he is, Greene rides to the rescue. Married to a Thai woman, he can work the corrupt Thai system better than Americans who don’t know the territory.
The story and prison of Brokedown Palace are fictional. To movie fans my age, the cautionary tale calls to mind another movie, “Midnight Express” about an American who did the crime and did some time, in real life, under intensely inhumane circumstances.
In 1970, Billy Hayes was a 23-year-old Marquette University student when he was arrested in Istanbul for attempting to leave Turkey with two kilos of hashish taped to his body. Hayes was initially sentenced to four years in prison for drug possession, only to learn he was to be charged with drug smuggling, which carried a life sentence. In 1972, Hayes was transferred to a psychiatric hospital he described as “a lunatic asylum.” He escaped from the hospital in 1975 and lived to tell the story in a 1977 autobiography.
The book was a powerful page-turner and the movie was a thriller of the first rank. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing. It won two Oscars, one for writer Oscar Stone for Best Adapted Screenplay and one for Giorgio Moroder for Best Original Score. The book and film are recommended for those who want to experience how ugly life can be for an American in a Turkish prison.
A footnote: I had just finished reading Midnight Express when I bumped into the actor Brad Davis who played Billy Hayes in the movie. We met at a Honolulu bar called Bully Hayes.