The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg, 1974)


Following my focus on Hitchcock, which hasn’t failed – shall we say – simply stalled, I decided to move onto Spielberg. Lets be honest, any film cineaste/cinephile/professional generally needs to know their Spielberg and so I decided to hunt down the (very few) missing Spielberg films and watch them. ‘Duel’, ‘The Sugarland Express’ and ‘Amistad’ were amongst the purchases (always going for the double disc, and always paying as little as possible). Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this one. I’d watch the brilliant [cannot-believe-it-was] made-for-TV ‘Duel’, and was ready to watch the next one: ‘The Sugarland Express’ and my oh my, it is quite a film …

Quick Synopsis

Right, we have Goldie Hawn playing the character Lou-Jean Poplin. This girl is very dominating and controlling – especially of her husband who resides at a pre-release jail. She literally orders him to escape with her and travel to Sugar land to get their child who has been taken into foster care. This is based on a true story though all characters have different names to their real counterparts which begs the question as to how honest the film has been …

Nevertheless, Lou-Jean and Clovis (William Atherton) – her husband – within minutes of escaping the prison they take hostage Officer Slide (Michael Sacks) and the three begin moving across the ‘Sugarland express’ – a highway through Texas that ends in the city Sugar Land, Texas. The three of them become buddies t some extent though Police follow them the whole way, not wanting to have their fellow Officer shot. In the process, the media coverage give the couple fame, whereby towns en route begin to root for the ‘couple-who-just-want-their-child-back’. At no point do the police have pity on the couple to the point of ‘letting them go – obviously – and the film ends with tragedy as – akin to the true story – Clovis is killed, while Lou-Jean is placed in prison and the child given back to the family

What I reckon …

The first important aspect to the film is how this was Spielberg’s first cinematic release – as ‘Duel’ was made for TV (though given a theatrical release following its – and his – success), this was Spielberg aware of the huge cinema screen audiences would view this on. The film shows a classic Spielberg-shot (no, not the zoom-in in ‘Jaws’ that Hitchcock used on ‘Vertigo’), but the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ shot of police cars on the horizon distorting under the heat and slowly coming into focus. These cinematic treats are littered throughout the movie showing how, even at this point, Spielberg was a director to look out for. Spielberg won Best Screenplay at Cannes for this film, but ultimately – commercially – it flopped. Lets be honest – post ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Easy Rider’, this was a bit, well, boring. There are a few parallels too – the celebrity status of the couple also evoke the Bonnie and Clyde story, which the tragic finale, though not a shootout, is i a similar vein (It is a shootout of sorts… just nowhere nears as impressive). Another production factor is John Williams score – I personally love film scores and this one I regularly listen to on a John Williams soundtrack. It has a real softness and yet catchy theme – justified no Indiana Jones – but it fits the story, showing John Williams skills as a composer even as early as this.

One thing which I gathered in this though – that is worth noting because it might be one reason why I have currently stalled watching Spielberg films (come to that later…), but there is no real exploration into the character Goldie Hawn plays – who is played brilliantly. She is sweet – but controlling, she has so many contradictions and at the same time seems wise enough to concoct the grand plan to escape, but fails to actually think-it-through: Did they think they would just take the child and get a house and live happily ever after? These themes don’t need to be the story – they simply need to be explored … this brings me to my final point. Maybe, just maybe, Spielberg just created this for pure entertainment. The simple box-office bucks. Why dwell on these issues when we could just have a good ol’ car chase? A concern I shall raise in the future methinks …

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