The Sugarland Express (1974) / Action-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and language (would be PG-13 today)
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Harrison Zanuck
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins

Review published December 2, 2013

The Sugarland Express tells the tale, based on true events chronicled in 1969, of Clovis (Atherton, Ghostbusters) and Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn, Foul Play), a married couple from Texas who determine to travel hundreds of miles to Sugarland, TX, in order to get their beloved toddler son Langston (Zanuck) from a life of foster care. The problem is that Lou Jean sneaks Clovis out of a minimum-security prison farm with only four months left to go in his sentence, which means that the cops will be on their trail, especially since they end up taking one of their own, Officer Maxwell Slide (Sacks, The Amityville Horror), hostage in order to keep the rest from stopping them in their tracks. The closer they get to their destination, the longer the line of cop cars behind them grows, as well as the story of their reputation among the common folk.

This typical 1970s cop/crook chase flick is perhaps most notable for being the first theatrically released film to be directed by Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters, 1941) in the United States. It would garner early accolades for Spielberg as a director, and the screenplay by Hal Barwood (MacArthur, Dragonslayer) and Matthew Robbins (Corvette Summer, Batteries Not Included) would take a top prize at Cannes. However, critical reviews did not prove to translate to financial success, as it struggled to get people into the theaters at the time of its release, perhaps due to its Bonnie and Clyde tale of simpleton criminals turned folk heroes having been done to death in a variety of forms already in the years just prior to its release in 1974, most notably in the high-profile release Badlands in 1973. It is also a downbeat film in an era when the public were looking more toward escapist fare in their movies and music (disco, for example).

Lots of Spielberg's future trademarks would be evidenced in this film, from the wide-open scope shot gorgeously in full use of the Panaflex process by Vilmos Zsigmond (The Long Goodbye, Deer Hunter), to the tracking shots among the characters and vehicles, to the dysfunctional family dynamic, to the underlying sense of wide-eyed whimsy underneath the menace. It also marks the first Spielberg film among a great many to be scored by the great John Williams (The Eiger Sanction, Star Wars), beginning a marriage that would carry through to the most popular and revered movies of all time.

Spielberg already had the car chase film under his belt, coming after the TV movie sensation, Duel, though this film features a much larger and more cumbersome dynamic, with over 100 vehicles to keep track of, as well as its share of crashes and pile-ups. Though there are many films of the 1970s that have featured more impressive cop chases and roguishly charming criminals to root for, few have the sense of style, scope and sentimentality that The Sugarland Express brings to the table.

Nevertheless, few would champion The Sugarland Express as being one of Spielberg's better films, as the characters are quite goofy and the storyline not quite compelling enough in and of itself to seem to merit a motion picture release, particularly in the somewhat downbeat events that transpire. At this early stage of his career, Spielberg was already undergoing an inner struggle between wanting to create the best film he can with the material and wanting to tap into the populist potential for commercial success. His sensibilities have always been at odds, but the result in this first theatrical endeavor does make for an uneven experience overall.

Spielberg does show that he can draw out good performances from a motley cast. The acting ensemble is solid, but Hawn is the true standout, with a mix of humor, zaniness, and sadness that suggests she doesn't quite know just how dangerous her fool's errand is for them all. Michael Sacks is also quite good in support as the sweet-natured cop who sees his captors as basically good people who mean no harm, but who knows that justice will not prevail on their side due to their checkered past. Of course, even if we sympathize with the plight of the Poplins, deep down, we likely realize that these two criminals are not exactly the fittest material for parenting.

Fans of Spielberg needn't feel sorry for the director that this amiable tale had met with box office indifference, as he would knock it out of the park in a major way with his follow-up release the next year, with the seminal horror-adventure classic, Jaws, which put the term "summer blockbuster" in the public lexicon once and for all.  While The Sugarland Express feels like more of a footnote in the Spielberg filmography than one worth of its own chapter, that this footnote would likely rank among the best films of many a director only shows just how much of a master Spielberg would become.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo