The Sugarland Express (1974)

Adventure, Comedy, Crime
Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton
A woman attempts to reunite her family by helping her husband escape prison and together kidnapping their son. But things don't go as planned when they are forced to take a police hostage on the road.
Its plot may ape the countercultural road movies of its era, but Steven Spielberg's feature debut displays many of the crowd-pleasing elements he'd refine in subsequent films.
  • 05 Apr 1974 Released:
  • 17 Aug 2004 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Hal Barwood (screenplay), Matthew Robbins (screenp Writer:
  • Steven Spielberg Director:
  • N/A Website:

Trailer:

Spielberg's Forgotten First Film9/10
After the success of Duel (which was really a TV movie) Sugarland Express (Spielberg's first feature film) flopped at the box office, though it received a reasonably warm critical response. In fact this is a great little movie for all kinds of reasons.

If you're interested in Spielberg as a director this is fascinating as it begins to lay out most of the themes that have driven his work ever since - family (especially divided and dysfunctional families), childhood, parenthood, outsiders, America and Americana etc. It's also a really interesting piece in terms of his developing style. This is the first Hollywood film in which panaflex cameras were used allowing Spielberg to produce fantastically elaborate and fluid shots even in the confines of a car (see the superb 360 pan fixed on Ben Johnson's car when he first talks to the Poplins)- a kind of cinematography that has become a hall mark of Spielberg's, as have the rising crane shots and extended tracking shots that pepper the film. Spielberg skies and "God Light" (his term for shafts of light in mist/at night) also feature heavily.

It's also a really interesting if somewhat unrecognised influence on films like Thelma and Louise which seems to lift its basic structure and characters right out of this film. The way Ben Johnson's Captain Tanner equates to Harvey Keitel's police officer in Ridley Scott's film seems particularly close.

Fantastic performances all round too. Johnson, Horne and Atherton (a much under-used actor who has been largely wasted since, playing roles like the self serving journalist in the Die Hard films)particularly shine.

It's also very funny, sad and engaging from beginning to end. Can't recommend this one enough - especially if you're a Spielberg fan.
Spielberg's sleeper- a tragic-comedy that delivers what it proposes10/10
Before Jaws propelled Steven Spielberg to the moon, he was a television director, often on episodes of Columbo and Night Gallery. Then came Duel, his taut, experimental feat of man vs. man in machines thriller that made him notable, if not bankable, in the Hollywood eye. His first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, is to me still one of his ten best (maybe not top five, but up there). Along with his screenwriters (whom would all go to win at Cannes), Spielberg brings a true story with a sense of the tragic realism, but also the sense of adventure and fun that goes into Spielberg's most entertaining films. There's usually a sense of excitement, but one can sense this is not the kind of story that will end up as the main characters think.

Goldie Hawn (as pretty as she is dramatic and chippy) and William Atheron (later impressionable in Ghostbusters, very much so here), are a husband and wife- the husband is in jail at the start of the film, and Hawn breaks him out with little trouble. They have a custody battle, literally, going on with their son, who is away at a home. They have to go through Texas- aka the 'Sugarland Express'- but it won't be easy. Soon there's a pursuit across the state, as the couple becomes rather famous in their simple pursuit of getting the one they love. Hawn and Atherton play off each other well, and Spielberg even at his young age as a director here gets very good performances out of them, especially out of Atherton who has a kind of urgent, tense, but focused way about him throughout. Hawn here isn't totally in the kind of mode like in her vehicle comedies- she's playing the worried mother, as determined as her husband, but her performance still contains a kind of naivete that's crucial to the character.

And in full widescreen glory Spielberg flexes his technical chops to a full capacity. He doesn't make the film as a thriller like with Duel, but it still drives suspense on in its road movie way. There are a couple of shots that are done for the first time (see trivia) to great effect, and there is a scene in a small town I still remember very well due to the amount of people that are in it, and how Spielberg directs this wonderfully. In some ways this is like one of those Lifetime movies crossed with Smokey and the Bandit only played more for realism; there's something very interesting that we don't get to see much with the son, he's always in a world of his own inside the house, as the situation builds on the outside.

This all builds up to an ending that some have said doesn't work, or (like with some of Spielberg's other films, War of the Worlds for example) is too abrupt. I found that it worked just as well as with the opening scenes. It's realistic, at least for the period, and its important to remember this is based on a true story, and in these establishing and closing scenes the audience gets the real meat of the story (Catch Me if You Can did this too, though in a different way), and then in the middle some of the more dramatized parts come in. It wasn't a smash success on its first release, but it made enough of an impression with its win at Cannes and its writers guild nomination (ironically it was nominated for Best Comedy) to get Spielberg his next gig, which ended up being the real test of his career. As a nifty tale of overly concerned parents on-the-run, its really very impressive.
Early Goldie, early Spielberg, both first-rate...8/10
Petty crook is busted out of pre-release jail by his determined-yet-reckless wife; seems their infant son has been farmed out to a wealthy foster couple while the two were behind bars and the Mrs. wants her baby back now. Director Steven Spielberg's first theatrical film has a scene midway through that still takes my breath away: Goldie Hawn and William Atherton take refuge in a mobile home parked in a lot behind a drive-in movie theater, a cartoon is up on the screen and Atherton supplies the sound effects--but, as the cartoon descends into violence, he stares out the window while his wife giggles on, oblivious to the parallels between the film and the paths their lives have taken. It's a miraculous moment in a high-spirited comedy-drama about trying to get what you want--even at the expense of the law. I'm surprised most Spielberg fans turn their noses up at this movie, it's one of his best. The finale doesn't really work (the picture switches gears too many times and eventually leaves us eating dust), but Goldie Hawn's performance is brave and funny and wonderful. In fact all the acting is excellent, right down to the last two-line player. *** from ****
Boy, did this get great press in 19748/10

Critics at the time were impressed by this new director, Steven Spielberg, who had previously directed Dennis Weaver in that spooky TV movie "Duel", but they were really impressed with Goldie Hawn, still mainly known as the blonde nitwit from "Laugh-In". She had been quite respectable in "Butterflies Are Free" in 1972, but she turned in a beautifully nuanced performance in this one.

I would certainly argue with any notion that this film is "underrated". It's always been well regarded, even back in the days when Spielberg was known as the clever kid who made "Jaws". That doesn't mean it has ever been easy to see.

Now, with the passage of time, "Sugarland Express" looks even better than it did in the 1970's. One still has no trouble at all getting caught up in the quixotic mission of these characters.
Spielberg's first film is wonderful, a classic.5/10

Haven't heard about "Sugarland Express" till recently and I had to see it because it was vintage Spielberg, and I'm a fan. And I wanted to see the young Goldie Hawn. I was not disappointed. It was one of these road-chase movies, bigger than life, but it was unique, especially because it was based on a true story. That fact made me incredulous throughout the film, but everything in Texas is supposed to be bigger than life.

Goldie desperately wants to get her baby back. She was in jail for some minor crimes and was found to be an unfit mother and her baby was put in a foster home and the foster parents were going to adopt him. Despite being a young girl, or maybe because of it, she was desperate to have her baby back. It was a love-child and the mother-love was passionate and obsessive. Hawn played the part to the hilt and used her sexuality and femininity to overcome the objections of her husband who was in a pre-release facility with low security.

She had a plan to help him escape, but he didn't want to risk it, take a chance of being caught and being incarcerated again. He only had four more months to serve. The other inmates were incredulous as they disguised themselves and got an old couple to give them a ride.

From this quiet beginning the film proceeded to repeated crescendos of drama and excitement. Try to imagine the young couple, young officer in tow, leading a chase of police cars, first a few, then a few dozen, then many dozen and ultimately hundreds, law-enforcement officers from all over the state and then snipers and a helicopter.

Lucky for the young couple an old-hand cop realized they were just a couple of kids and he staved off snipers with telescopic long-range rifles and a couple of vigilante gun-nuts.

You know something bad is going to happen at the end, because these kids didn't know what they were doing; they were madly in love and in a fantasy-land of getting their little boy back and living happily ever after in Mexico. Something bad happened, but something good happened. It will be worth your while to see this little classic from one of the greatest directors of the 20th century.