The Sugarland Express (1974)


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins

Starring: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson

Tagline: Based on a real life event that happened in Texas in 1969.

Trivia: Spielberg shot the film in continuity.

Steven Spielberg’s first feature film The Sugarland Express still stands one of the most impressive debuts in American cinema.  Although it’s often relegated to a footnote in Spielberg’s canon, most discussions focus on the blockbusters, The Sugarland Express is worth a look.

Based on the true story of a couple who kidnapped a state trooper to stop the government from taking their child away, The Sugarland Express is a beautiful losers epic that owes much to Bonnie and Clyde.  Arthur Penn portrayed Bonnie and Clyde as counter-culture heroes, but Spielberg focused on the humanity of his inept criminals.

The film begins at a Pre-Release facility in Texas.  Lou Jean (Hawn) arrives to visit her husband Clovis who is finishing a jail sentence for petty theft.  She informs him the state intends to take away their son so they make a quick escape.  They kidnap a kindly patrolman Slide (Sacks) and are subsequently pursued by hundreds of patrol cars. Leading the chase is veteran law officer Captain Tanner, played with a quiet dignity by Ben Johnson.

Spielberg creates a world where the automobile symbolizes a place of respite, a stark contrast to his prior film Duel where the highway was a terrain of nightmares. State of the art Panavision cameras were used that allowed for complex shots inside the car. The chase sequences blend realism with absurdity.

The Sugarland Express also reveals the law and order ethos of 1970s America, guns are a fetish instrument. We repeatedly see squadrons of cops loading their guns, itching for a kill.  In one scene Captain Tanner chastises a group of vigilantes who attempt to shoot the fugitives, a sly commentary on gun culture.

Lou Ann and Clovis become celebrities overnight.  The cascade of reporters, radio banter, and crowd shots paint a sardonic portrait of mass culture, a recurring motif that would appear in many of Spielberg’s future films.

The picture ends not with the Nihilism of Bonnie and Clyde, but on a more reflective note. The system wins all right, but Spielberg’s movie reality says otherwise.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography deserves high accolades as well, a style similar tp the one he used in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. MillerThe Sugarland Express also marked the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams, a folk music score with a prominent harmonica.

Spielberg took a thin story, one more appropriate for a Movie of the Week, and made a poignant film through adventurous camera work and honest performances.  A mild box office success, the film gave Universal the confidence to hire him to direct their big budget film for 1975 – Jaws.


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