Steven Spielberg received tremendous acclaim for Duel, and it earned serious money in Europe during a theatrical run. Even so, his first official feature didn’t appear until The Sugarland Express three years later. This film is adapted from the true story of Ila Fae and Robert Dent, who led a massive group of police cars on a chase after kidnapping a state trooper. This pursuit is expanded in the movie for dramatic purposes and is an interesting choice given the path of Spielberg’s career. Working with a $3 million budget, he delivered a successful project that gave him a chance to shoot Jaws a year later. It was well-received by critics and showed that he was a filmmaker to watch. That said, no one could predict this goofy guy would become such a major Hollywood institution. Considered apart from this baggage, does this movie provide a compelling story? It seems largely forgotten in Spielberg’s career sitting between Duel and the massive successes that would follow.
What's the story about?
Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) is concerned that her son will be lost to foster care, so she enacts a daring plan to break her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of prison. He’s at the pre-release farm, so it seems like a dumb move on his part. Her desperation wins him over, and they take Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) hostage along the way. A large caravan of police cars follows as the couple holds out hope of reaching their son. Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) leads the pursuit and tries desperately to save his man while ending the chase in the least violent way possible. The Poplins aren’t cooperating, so it’s only a matter of time before the conflict escalates toward a deadly level.
Does this film reveal the skills that would make Spielberg a household name?
The Sugarland Express feels rough when compared to Spielberg’s more recent work, but that’s not really a bad thing. It doesn’t feel like a "MOVIE" and just tells the story of characters that make very bad choices. This is the first collaboration between Spielberg and John Williams, yet it lacks the bravado you might expect when thinking of his music. The score falls way into the background and only crops up during a few key moments. The silence is eerie at times, especially when Lou Jean shrieks crazily at their misfortune. Spielberg uses the music sparingly and focuses more on dialogue, which fits with the character-based approach. The talent is definitely there, particularly when it involves the movements of scores of police cars. He directs action without drawing attention to the filmmaking and allows the stunts to take precedence. We’re right inside the action, which feels similar to Spielberg’s achievements in Duel.
Are there connections between this early movie and his later work?
Spielberg has built his reputation on big-budget adventures and prestige pictures, so this small-scale production feels different. Its ending is also less cheerful than you might expect from a director who’s often chided for being sentimental. Even so, it doesn’t feel completely out of place. Even when he’s presenting larger-than-life scenarios (dinosaurs in modern times, the end of the world), Spielberg finds a way to stay focused on the characters. There are shootouts and car chases in this film, but they feel almost secondary to what’s happening between the Poplins and their hostage. Slide is an intriguing character because he’s a lawman yet finds common ground with the criminals. The interactions are surprisingly human and make us care for him even more than the two leads. The quiet moments bring weight to the action scenes, and Spielberg has carried that lessen throughout his career.
What are the primary themes? Does Spielberg make them interesting?
This is mainly a character study, but Spielberg takes a few shots at celebrity culture. Lou Jean and Clovis drive through a town and are greeted like the Beatles by people who just want to touch them. This is strange because we’ve seen little about their popularity among the local populace. This subtle approach occurs throughout the movie. The biggest shootout involves characters we’ve just met, so they’re basically stand-ins for non-professionals who think they’re officers of the law. These oddballs nearly ruin everything and get no sympathy from Spielberg. His champion is Tanner, who uses great patience and composure when dealing with the hostage situation. When he loses his cool and starts ripping apart a car, it’s stunning because he’s been so expressionless for most of the movie.
Spielberg has described The Sugarland Express as a "monumental logistical problem" that required intricate planning. Does this technical focus dominate?
Although Spielberg stays focused on the main three characters, it's hard to truly connect with Lou Jean and Clovis. Their goals to retrieve their son are understandable, but I wasn't that excited to spend time with them. She's so convinced that they're going to succeed that she doesn't see the walls closing in around them. It's definitely a step above your standard road movie and delivers some excellent moments, but its impact is limited by the end. Spielberg shows his talent and presents an engaging story for two hours. However, it's not a surprise that The Sugarland Express isn't considered one of his greatest films.
Next week, I'll close out this marathon by looking at a rare Spielberg flop with 1941.