Welcome back to Series Spielberg, a series on Film Sentinel where each week we are examining a work from the career of one of cinema’s most prolific directors: the king of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg. Last week, we discussed Duel, Spielberg’s first professional film, a man-vs.-auto thriller that was originally intended for the small screen. This week, however, is special, because it concerns Steven’s first-ever studio-backed film that was produced for theatrical distribution, the under-valued counter-cultural road/crime film The Sugarland Express.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Like Duel, The Sugarland Express is a film that was made before Steven had the clout of works such as Saving Private Ryan and Jaws to boast of. He had, however, just directed a very popular film for television, which had been expanded for theatrical distribution abroad. Soon after, Universal producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown hired Steven to direct the crime film The Sugarland Express, which was to be set almost entirely on the road. Since Duel was also mostly comprised of auto stunts, this almost certainly contributed to Steven getting the job.
The Sugarland Express is based on the true story of an event that took place five years earlier in 1969. A young couple, 21-year-old Ila Fae Holiday/Dent and 22-year-old Robert “Bobby” Dent, took a state trooper hostage in his police car and led a caravan police chase for hundreds of miles all the way to Sugarland, Texas to claim their son, and became a media sensation along the way. The script was penned by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, who both had previously collaborated with George Lucas on his THX experiments, but had never written a feature film.
Goldie Hawn stars as the movie version of Ila Fae, Lou Jean. The film opens with her breaking her husband Clovis (the movie version of Bobby Dent, played by William Atherton) out of prison so that he’ll go with her to Sugarland, Texas, to pick up their baby boy before he gets adopted. As their journey progresses, they end up taking a state trooper hostage by the name of Maxwell (Michael Sacks) and using his car. As they get closer to Sugarland, a massive caravan of police cars begins to follow as the local law enforcement struggles to find a way to diffuse the situation.
The film draws strong comparisons to a pair of revered works that preceded it, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 and Terrence Malick’s Badlands from 1973, films that are important for the counter-culture era and also feature criminal couples on the run. It’s because of this that The Sugarland Express loses points for originality, but it stands apart from those films thanks to its lighter tone, comedic beats, and escapist approach to the subject. And even while The Sugarland Express also ends in tragedy, Spielberg still manages to balance his dueling tones with ease.
The big-screen interpretation of Ila Fae and Bobby Dent succeeds as well as it does largely thanks to the superb work of its two leading roles. Goldie Hawn was already an established star at this point, having risen to prominence on the NBC program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and receiving an Academy Award for 1969’s Cactus Flower, but William Atherton, who was relatively unknown at the time, submits a mature performance to match his co-star. Goldie is peppy and hilarious as Lou Jean, but it’s really Atherton’s Clovis who functions as the emotional centerpiece of the film.
From watching this couple interact throughout the movie, it becomes clear that Clovis is the more level-headed of the pair. Lou Jean appears to be the bad influence, as she urges Clovis to break out of pre-release when he only has a matter of weeks left on his sentence. Lou Jean is also quite foolish and naïve, easily getting hysterical, and always delusional in her optimism that things will work out. Clovis, however, is quite aware throughout the film that this journey is not likely to end well, and Atherton is excellent at conveying his sense of dread to the audience.
This is most readily apparent in a scene that stands as the film’s most artistically sophisticated, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Atherton’s acting. As Lou Jean and Clovis peer at a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon playing one evening at a drive-in through an RV window, Spielberg reflects the cartoon against the glass, while we are able to see the couple’s faces behind it. Lou Jean giggles at the onscreen antics, but as Wile E. plummets off a cliff, we see the sense of impending doom hitting Clovis’s consciousness, as it’s clear his story won’t have a happy ending.
The Sugarland Express registers as mainly popcorn entertainment with no deeper agenda behind it, but Steven still manages to work in some directorial flourish as he moves the action along at a brisk pace. In one shot, the caravan of police cars all follows along a same turn, and a weathervane rotates to appear to be directing the traffic. All along the route, Steven weaves in delightful moments of detail and redneck humor to add some texture when the film could have been just car chase after car chase. And as Duel proved, Steven is good at depticting auto stunts.
Just as with Duel, Steven continues his mantra of absolutely hating to film on sound stage, and always preferring to shoot on location. Because of this, The Sugarland Express benefits immensely by realistic depictions of its many, many road scenes, where another director may have been willing to cut corners and use process. The early car chase sequence where Lou Jean and Clovis initially steal the old couple’s car to evade the state trooper Maxwell is exciting throughout, and Steven obviously has fun finding new ways to depict the growing armada of police cars.
As the situation escalates, it’s both fascinating and endearing the way that Lou Jean and Clovis bond with their unwilling hostage, as well as how the couple become folk heroes among a developing media frenzy. The bombastic reception the caravan receives in Sugarland is amusing, and it is juxtaposed by the tragedy in Clovis’s ensuing death with powerful narrative impact. These two lovers on the run may not have been the brightest, but they weren’t malicious in their intentions, as Maxwell states in the end, “He took my gun, but he wasn’t gonna use it.”
The Sugarland Express was released on March 3, 1974. It was no major hit, only taking in about $12.8 million, but it was received nicely enough by critics, and Universal was evidently happy enough with it to give Steven a chance again with a later film, Jaws. The film is dwarfed in its legacy by Spielberg’s many later movie phenomenons, but that’s sort of a shame, because it’s actually one of his more subtle works dramatically, even though it’s no masterpiece. Hopefully as time goes on, the strength of Spielberg’s reputation will give this film a renewed interest.
At this point in his career, Spielberg’s directing work had almost entirely involved the road, but he would be soon to transition from the highway, to the sea, with 1975’s Jaws. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming by rental, or by subscription with Hulu. See you next week.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins. Story by Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, and Matthew Robbins.
Starring Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, and Michael Sacks.
Released March 30, 1974.