Before Jaws Steven Spielberg directed The Sugarland Express, a comedy-drama about a mild-mannered but determined Texan Mum who takes a police officer hostage after authorities threaten to take her child.
After establishing himself with the pared down thriller Duel, director Steven Spielberg was given a crack at directing his next theatrical feature. Adapted by Spielberg, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a supposedly true story, The Sugarland Express stars Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin, the wife of convict Clovis Michael Poplin. In danger of losing her child to the authorities, Lou Jean helps Clovis bust out of jail, hoping that he’ll help her keep her baby. Taking police officer Maxwell Slide hostage, the couple speeds across America in their beat-up car, followed every inch of the way by a flashing-light fleet of police vehicles. Eventually, there are more than 200 vehicles in pursuit.
It’s amazing to look back at Steven Spielberg’s second feature film to see how completely in command of the medium he already was. There’s absolutely no question here that this is a director with a God-given talent for making good old-fashioned cinema. However, having said that, The Sugarland Express is really nothing more than breezy entertainment that starts out as deceptively light-hearted and continues to be like that for the most part, and then as it gets towards its final act, the film unexpectedly – and effectively – deepens into melodrama and tragedy.
In some ways, the movie is a chase film that has been repeated and duplicated many, many times since. But here, the chase with the police gets more and more ridiculously absurd and insane when the police cars giving chase start to increase from a small handful at the beginning and then to over 200 by the end. Consequently, it does start to become repetitive as well, with the characters having to keep stopping and starting the chase over and over again, and as a result, the film does start to run out of steam and lose its momentum.
But Spielberg makes up for this by constantly giving us spectacular visuals of Texas all the way through the film, and in a way, Texas is a major character itself as we are engulfed by the entire landscape. The film’s glowing, shimmering cinematography is provided to us here by the excellent Vilmos Zsigmond, and John Williams provides a score that is perfectly understated, and is a long way from his bombastic anthems of later years, like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Having come off the back of her Oscar win in 1969 with Cactus Flower, Goldie Hawn gives a perfectly likeable and charming, if tragic and complex performance as the wife eager to be reunited with her son, while both Michael Sacks and William Atherton give fine performances, even if they cannot match the strength of Hawn’s calibre.
Overall, while it’s perfectly passable and enjoyable fare with many sweet ingredients attached to it, The Sugarland Express is ultimately not a classic and has never really been considered one of Spielberg’s major achievements. Sure, it’s infinitely superior to the bloated and shambolic 1941, but it has nothing to compare with Spielberg’s next feature Jaws, the monster classic that famously changed the face of blockbusters forever.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, Michael Sacks
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