Spielberg Shows Potential in ‘Sugarland Express’
By Todd Hill
Foolish behavior is on full and glorious display in the 1974 movie “The Sugarland Express.” On many levels and simultaneously, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film revels in the really dumb things we human beings are often led to do. Inevitably, someone always pays a price for this ignorance.
“The Sugarland Express” will always merit mention for being Spielberg’s first big-screen movie (his well-regarded “Duel” of three years earlier appeared on television). But the picture also deserves to be included in the genre of American road movies that were popular in the 1970’s.
Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin, a married couple and small-time criminals at best, throw common sense to the wind to retrieve their infant son from his adopted family. Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) helps Clovis (William Atherton) break out of his pre-release facility a few months early (really dumb) so they can kidnap a state trooper (also dumb) and force him to drive them across Texas to Sugarland, where the supposed family reunion is to occur.
Naturally, this act compels the attention of seemingly all the law enforcement officers in the state, who set out in hot pursuit en masse. What results is a spectacle of overkill striking for its imbecility, but they do say that everything’s bigger in Texas. This is also just the kind of spectacle — dozens upon dozens of police vehicles snaking over the Texas prairie — that can make for a good movie.
The New York Times’ Nora Sayre described it wonderfully — “As the herd of cars races and heaves and crashes through the landscape, the state’s personality surfaces like a sperm whale.”
Although the Poplins’ Lone Star odyssey takes place well before the age of social media, small-town Texans somehow learn of the chase and line the roads in cheering throngs, yet another opportunity to observe people acting like idiots, although not unrealistically. Los Angelenos turned out in much the same fashion during O.J. Simpson’s low-speed run from the police in 1994.
“The Sugarland Express” is based on a true story, as was the motion picture “Bonnie and Clyde,” which made a significant impression on movie audiences seven years earlier, and likely Steven Spielberg as well. But the road movie genre of the 1970’s, of which “Sugarland Express” is a principal member, was more the culmination of the American car culture that rose up in the late 1950’s, married with a generous helping of 1960’s countercultural attitude.
It was a good fit, from 1969’s seminal “Easy Rider” and the more high-toned “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), to the genre’s purest distillation in the trippy “Vanishing Point” (1971) and down and dirty “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” (1974).
The road genre was finally taken commercial with 1977’s “Smoky and the Bandit,” which killed it, although that film is still lots of fun thanks to an A-list cast having as much fun as we are. But the edge was gone for good. “Smoky and the Bandit” also had an upbeat ending, a real genre no-no.
“The Sugarland Express” was a bona fide flop at the box office. Studio heads were turned off by the film’s depressing ending and lowered its release profile; many moviegoers who did manage to find it in a theater were ultimately sorry they did. But film critics knew a good thing when they saw it, and it’s their consensus take on the picture that has survived, no doubt in part because Spielberg went on to have something of a decent career making movies.
Not a lot of room needs to be expended on the picture’s cast. Goldie Hawn thought “Sugarland Express” would be the film to finally rid her of her ditzy blonde persona, which fortunately for her career didn’t really happen. The persona served her well not just on television’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” but earned her an Academy Award for the 1969 film “Cactus Flower” and another Oscar nomination for 1980’s “Private Benjamin,” the biggest hit of her career.
“The Sugarland Express,” however, is a directorial feat through and through. Spielberg was just 26 when he made it, yet his talents behind the camera spill out in one ambitious sequence after another. He also showed a good eye for landing a strong production team, from cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond, who made tremendous use of natural lighting, to composer John Williams (this was the first of their many collaborations), who talked the director down and provided a suitably spare musical score.
Spielberg’s first feature film is far from the best of the 1970’s road movies, and it doesn’t have anything to say. But the picture is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end, and it looks great. The director’s next project, a year later, was “Jaws.” Spielberg obviously stepped up his game there. But if “The Sugarland Express” has anything to show us today, it’s that Spielberg had game from the get-go.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.