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The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express
Universal Home Video
1974 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Street Date August 17, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Art Direction Joe Alves Jr.
Film Editor Edward M. Abroms, Verna Fields
Original Music John Williams
Written by Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
Produced by David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Steven Spielberg first attracted serious attention with a TV movie about a truck possessed by the Devil (well, sort of). The Sugarland Express wasn't the breakout hit that he wanted it to be, but it marked the young man who as something new in the directorial landscape: A film student "kid" made a movie that "moved" audiences better than standard industry talent. Of all of the wunderkinds arising in the early 70s - DePalma, Milius, Bartel, Scorsese, Lucas - he seemed the least serious but the most kinetic. With just one more shot Spielberg moved into the directorial stratosphere, but this clean-cut show has a special place as his first theatrical feature, before his storytelling talent wasn't subordinated to the necessity to top the boxoffice charts.

Unless one absolutely hates Goldie Hawn (I think she's a major talent), The Sugarland Express is a splendidly entertaining comedy drama with a less-than-rosy ending that lingers as strongly in the mind as any film from the list of famous directors that Spielberg so obviously worshipped.


Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) springs her husband Clovis (William Atherton) from a low security holding pen only a few months before his parole date, because the Texas authorities have turned their son Baby Langston (Harrison Zanuck) over to foster parents and plan to let them adopt him. Before they know it the Poplins have hijacked a patrol car and its Texas State Trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and are being pursued by hundreds of armed police led by Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner empathizes with the Poplin's hopeless quest to recover Baby Langston, but knows he can't let them do it ... and dispatches snipers to await their arrival at the foster home in Sugarland.

There was a joke around Hollywood that Spielberg was a terrific "traffic director," snidely implying that he was only a mechanical technician even after The Sugarland Express should have proved otherwise. The Robbins-Barwood screenplay succeeds in making the real-life losers the Poplins into Bonnie & Clyde- style heroes, even as we know their attempt to recover their lost child is a fool's errand. From almost the very beginning the hapless escapees are enveloped in a massive mess of cop cars and pointed guns that guarantee the hopelessness of their quest.

The Poplins can't possibly succeed, and many another storyteller would have no choice but to depress the audience with the inevitablilty of their failure. Spielberg and Co. instead show the serious tragedy of Baby Langston being "kidnapped" by his new foster parents (cast pointedly with two "unlikeable" older actors, Merrill Connally and Louise Latham of Marnie), counterpointed by a crazy bunch of road games that put Roadrunner cartoons to shame. Just about the only lame device Spielberg uses in the whole movie is to put a cartoon into the plot, so the Poplins can laugh with childlike glee at the demise of Wile E. Coyote, and then choke when they realize they're probably headed for the same fate. Indeed, there's a bonafide Bonnie & Clyde moment later on when hundreds of adoring "fans" reach into their car to encourage the Poplins to recover their child.

The Sugarland Express re-imagines the standard American road movie in high-octane, muscle-car terms. It's the 70s now. There are no longer any lonesome roads with a solitary Robert Mitchum cruising the white lines to an existential fate; in this show the highway becomes an insane circus of speed, reckless driving and motor mayhem. Followed by a mile-long string of black'n whites with flashing alarm lights, the Poplins lead a crazy parade they cannot shake. Ben Johnson's paternal judgment can't keep his cowboy troopers from trying ridiculous stunts to apprehend the fugitives, and he knows there's little or no chance for a peaceful solution. He takes out his frustration on a pair of civilian vigilantes in an audience-pleasing moment of retribution.

Inside the hijacked patrol car, young Maxwell Slide falls into an immediate rapport with his captors and the three embark on a mutual effort to survive. Clovis and Lou Jean are indeed not very bright and certainly not good candidates to keep their baby. Spielberg keeps their index of adorability high because we need to believe in them. I could well imagine that the real Lou Jean Poplin would have a much harder time defending her status as a fit mother. Even in the movie, it's implied that she may have gotten her $65 bus fare through illicit means. But in the moo-vees, mothers seeking to recover their children are to be forgiven anything.

The Sugarland Express is Spielberg's first 'family film,' even though the family this time is already a fractured mess. The Poplins surely don't deserve extermination and probably would be good parents given half a chance, and who is going to argue with Parenthood? Arrayed against them is an unfeeling bureaucracy, foster parents who might relatives of the Wicked Witch of the West and the entire law enforcement community that sees them as fair game on the wing.

Playing with a Panavision lens for the first time, Spielberg proves himself a master of 'scope compositions casual and formal, making the work of pretenders like John Carpenter look forced and obvious. I believe many of the film-school directors chose the 'scope format for two reasons. They dreamed of the epic 50s pictures of their childhood, true, but they also knew that the alternative "flat widescreen" format could be reframed in projection any number of ways and so required directors to forget about exacting compositions. With 'Scope, the picture could only be shown one way on the screen.  1

Spielberg does 'direct traffic' beautifully, using cars as an endless string of angry bees buzzing around our protagonists. Part of the new raised-on-TV director's desire was to eliminate the dull parts from movies, and Spielberg does this by making sure not a single shot is composed of just one element. Dialogue scenes often have mass automobile movements in the background. "Inserts" usually filmed remotely from the main action are instead integrated into complicated master shots. This kind of work requires massive effort and energy that only a young director is willing to invest in his work; Speilberg probably won't discover minimalism until he has to work from a wheelchair.

Unlike DePalma or Milius, Spielberg's Cinema 101 borrowings are elegant and purposeful. He uses a Hitchcock smash-zoom to glorious effect in a scene of impending violence. A matched pair of doors opening and closing on darkness alludes to the famous homestead doorway in John Ford's The Searchers, the touchstone film of early 70s film school attendees.  2

Spielberg and some of his more commercial brethren embraced the directorial freedom to stage elaborate scenes of mayhem, and The Sugarland Express includes a handful of very hairy stunts. The winner is a scary turnover of a TV van with its crew tumbling off the roof and out of opened doors. It looks great and delivers the exhilarating thrills that are at least a part of what Spielberg wants to communicate. Unfortunately, the eagerness of stuntmen and irresponsible directors caused an attitude of recklessness that increased in the 70s. Stuntmen became directors and plenty of movies existed for their stunts alone; and finally about ten years later the result was a horrific accident on the set of The Twilight Zone. Safety became a serious issue again, and there were fewer destruction derbies like The Blues Brothers that sought laughs through absurdly dangerous stunts. 3

The Sugarland Express uses its action in creative ways that lead up to final scenes of stillness, the sinister pause at the doorstep of the foster home, and when the getaway car dies like an animal on a river sandbar. Even in his finish Spielberg shows an admirable restraint and control of his film. Unlike some of his later crowd-pleasing efforts, when this show is re-viewed, there's always something new to discover.

Goldie Hawn is a marvel here, making something extremely sympathetic from a whiney troublemaking woman. I'm reminded of how she was the only, the only successful element in Woody Allen's pathetic musical of a few years back, Everyone Says I Love You. People who only know William Atherton as a comic jerk in Ghostbusters and Die Hard will be surprised by the range he shows here. Michael Sacks of Slaughterhouse-Five is probably playing out a Universal contract but gives his best film performance as the guileless, sweet-hearted abductee. Ben Johnson proves he can wrangle a squad car as well as a horse, and probably appreciated the vacation from saddle sores; Steve Kanaly appears as one of his patrolmen.

Universal's DVD of the The Sugarland Express is an excellent enhanced transfer. There's no surfeit extras, something rare for a Spielberg film. The good trailer is on board but otherwise we must content ourselves with the superior-looking film itself.

The cover art features a giant sexy close-up of Goldie that could easily be from There's a Girl in My Soup or Butterflies are Free. When in doubt, give up and show the star. At least the star won't complain.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Sugarland Express rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 9, 2004


1. Of course, until letterboxing in video came along, 'scope films were compositionally slaughtered by pan-scan when shown on television. Many directors now purposely avoid 'scope because they know that after a few months their work will live mainly on video.

2. The smash-zoom is the best description I've yet heard for Hitchcock's vertigo-inducing effect in Vertigo, countering a zoom with a trucking motion in the opposite direction. Space and perspective seem to stretch out or squash in depending on which way the motion goes. Spielberg used the smash zoom as Hitchcock did, to induce a feeling of interior panic and disorientation, with shots of Roy Scheider witnessing a shark attack in Jaws.
As for The Searchers, the 70s talent I mention surely saw it earlier, but my initiation was through a perfect Tech print shown at UCLA's giant screen. Seen that way the film is mesmerizing; I was an instant convert. UCLA kept the film two weeks and scheduled three more showings to awed crowds. We were told it was one of the few surviving original Tech prints; when I tried to show it a couple of years later, a Warners film booker told me that some USC student had destroyed it by running it back and forth in a movieola. The Wayne family reportedly still has a couple of original prints in good shape and they may be the last, unless more have been squirreled away in archives.


3. I witnessed stunts (and injuries) on Close Encounters and 1941 that seemed way out of control, but stunt work is a profession that's impossible to judge from the outside, even if you're standing right there. Those stunt professionals were safety conscious and the most I witnessed were individual stuntmen eager to risk their own lives (and rise in the stunt community?). The Twilight Zone was something else. Anyone knows that putting little kids in the path of explosions and helicopters is a grossly unnecessary risk.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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