The Sugarland Express (1974)
The Sugarland Express (1974)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Release Date: April 5th, 1974 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham, A.L. Camp, Jessie Lee Fulton




isembarking from a Continental Trailways bus, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) heads to a Texas Department of Corrections division to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton), who was just transferred from the penitentiary. But she’s there to deliver bad news; she’s divorcing him. And on top of that, their baby is currently in the foster care system, with the potential of being moved out of state. Desperate to rescue her child, she has an elaborate (or rather simple) escape plan all set up, despite the fact that Clovis only has four months left in prison pre-release. Bustin’ out is the easy part, however; eluding the authorities and retrieving their infant will be the genuine ordeal.

Based on a real event from 1969, this road-based adventure capitalizes on the notion of terribly inept criminals accidentally succeeding in harebrained schemes. Amusingly, the lead officer in pursuit, patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) is equally unprepared for the amateurish unpredictability of his targets, getting wrapped up in their escalating spree of felonies. “You’ve got no idea what’s gonna happen to you.”

“We got a bad hombre here.” As director Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express” immediately demonstrates some of the hallmarks of his moviemaking style, not only with humor amid dramatic moments, augmented by quirky musical cues, but also with his affinity for action and incredibly authentic supporting personalities mixed into larger-than-life tales set in grounded scenarios (even if they spiral out of control in laughably exaggerated ways). There’s also a sense of wonderment and high spirits concerning the leads; the potentially deadly hostage endeavor never possesses the gravity it would in comparable pictures like “Thelma and Louise” or “Dog Day Afternoon.” Instead, conversations are laced with levity – the kind that would transpire between people wholly unconcerned with the dire consequences of their actions, along the lines of “Raising Arizona.”

Other elements that Spielberg would revisit in future projects are the use of a child as a primary plot point (and the perspective of immaturity to both heighten the thrills and increase the comedy), as well as a general mockery of the media (the Poplins’ hazardous joyride turns into a media circus, inspiring a naive, idolizing public – perhaps the auteur’s spin on “Ace in the Hole”), reckless vigilantism, and authority figures – though the veteran in charge, Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson), isn’t the merciless type of enforcer often found in crime flicks. Tanner is a beacon of sensibility and calm, to the detriment of the force’s reputation. Clearly, in Spielberg’s vision of cops and robbers, everyone is an average person, with reasonable motives and expectations and inclinations toward forgiveness, even when circumstances tend to demand more outrageous reactions. Here, no one is a Dirty Harry or Brannigan or even Popeye Doyle type of hero. It helps that Hawn and Atherton are sympathetic while making countless bad decisions, accruing so many that their survival is in itself an unbelievable feat, lending to a finale (and a bizarrely unsatisfying – or unfair – coda) that can’t stave off tragedy forever.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10