“We’re in real trouble.”
“When I called you a son of a bitch, I didn’t mean it.” “And you ain’t no mental subject neither.”
“You got me out here with no where to sit.” “Why don’t you sit on your fist and lean back on your thumb.”
An often forgotten entry in Steven Spielberg’s filmography is his theatrical debut, “The Sugarland Express” which arrived in 1974 and borrowed from the counterculture road trip movies that were popular at that time. “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Badlands” are far superior movies for the record. With “The Sugarland Express”, Spielberg toys with popular elements that would connect him to audiences in later work. Unfortunately, his theatrical debut is an uneven mixture of comedy, tragic drama and absurdity.
Based upon a true story (I’m guessing fairly loosely) that happened in Texas 1969, a young Goldie Hawn (character’s name is Lou Jean) breaks her husband (Clovis played by William Atherton) out of prison with a nutty plan. First, the jail break and then the drive across Texas in order to kidnap their own baby son who had been placed with foster parents. Clovis is a tad hesitant to follow through on the jail break as he just has four months to go on his sentence but Lou Jean is determined and impulsive. Her desire is made clear from the outset: she wants to bring her family back together.
Eventually, there is the inaugural car chase (in a movie that is essentially one big car chase) involving Lou Jean and Clovis and a highway patrolman. At the climax of this chase, Lou Jean has grabbed the highway patrolman’s gun and tossed it in the general direction of Clovis who takes the patrolman hostage. This is a dumb thing to do. Surely, Clovis knows how this will end and the patrolman, Slide (played by Michael Sacks), constantly reminds him. Lou Jean is so committed and dedicated to her goal of bringing the family back together that she may not even contemplate how all of this will inevitably play out.
Pursuing the pair with hostage Slide is Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) who is a good man that does not want to see the events de-evolve into bloodshed. We see a vast quantity of camera shots showing us a seemingly endless line of police cars following the trio. Spielberg seems to revel in the train of cop cars and flashing lights. Also thrown in for action purposes are the cars slamming into each other during the chase and even cop cars flipping over on the road. With the serious drama at the heart of this story, these sequences give the movie a madcap physical comedy feel.
As the caravan makes it’s way across Texas and toward Sugarland, the notion of celebrity is briefly explored. The fugitives have become famous on the news and various people stand by the side of the road with signs encouraging them and their family. In a small town, a parade of people jams the street and the cars drive slowly through.
All of these elements mixed together are a part of the problem, the uneven feel. Does the movie want to be a slapstick comedy in the vein of showing cars smashing into each other? Does it want to be a moving drama about a woman trying to put her family back together? Does the film want to investigate the role of media with celebrities or in this case, overnight celebrities well before the age of YouTube and the internet? With Spielberg and screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins exploring these different threads, they could not cohesively put it all together.
“The Sugarland Express” does have some very good moments and a viewer can see the Spielberg audience pleasing style coming into play which will be worked to perfection during future offerings. As a matter of fact, Spielberg will have made leaps and bounds in his director duties by his next film which will always be one for the ages.
Lester Lauding Level: 2.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
The Sugarland Express