Movie: The Sugarland Express (1974)

In 1974, Steven Spielberg graduated from TV work to direct his first theatrical film, Sugarland Express.  I’ll admit I didn’t know much about it prior to my first time seeing it recently.

It opens with a disclaimer saying what we are to see if based on real events that happened in Texas in 1969.  I felt the strangest flickering of terror that I might be about to see Goldie Hawn star in a PG reworking of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Needless to say, that isn’t what it is.  Still, I was surprised by what it turned out to be: Hawn plays a woman recently freed from prison breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of another facility so they can take back their son from the family that adopted him.  In short order, they kidnap a highway patrolman played Michael Sacks and hit the road to their son’s adopted home. 

Something that is interesting about this movie is how quickly the police are aware of what has happened.  They don’t dare take drastic measures for fear Hawn and Atherton may hurt the officer.  The result is that, early on, there’s a long line of police cars following them so slowly that it looks like a bizarre funeral procession.  More pursuit vehicles join the line as it moves across Texas. In one scene, a line of vehicles joining the others look not unlike a stream merging into a river.

As they get closer to their destination, they encounter growing mobs of fans.  I think it is interesting how the public has always looked for folk heroes, so I wasn’t surprised the couple experiences brief fame as a sort of Bonnie and Clyde.  In the last crowd they pass through, a great many people press upon them gifts of wildly varying merit, such as the baby pig which immediately urinates on Hawn.  Ah, the perils of fame.

One peril I did not anticipate is a couple of hunters who gather together all the firepower they have and hunt the couple down to administer their own form of justice.  As preposterous as that may sound, I have a horrible feeling that is even more likely to happen in such a situation today.  I laughed when one of the hunters says, “There’s going to be a lot of clowns out there with firearms and itchy fingers.”  Pot, meet kettle.  I like to think these guys were part of the group of good ol’ boys in the original Dawn of the Dead who have a big party while using the oncoming waves of zombies as target practice.

As for the performances, Hawn is solid here but I don’t think she truly excelled in the role to the degree she would in later roles.  It was interesting, however, to see her looking decidedly unglamorous, as Laugh-In would have still been fresh in most viewers’ minds at this time.  I thought William Atherton was a hair more convincing as the father who didn’t want to be sprung from a pre-release center.  That’s right, he was already on his way out of prison when Hawn forces him to accompany her.  Sacks is also solid, but I felt he didn’t have much to do except play to straight man to the frantic couple. The performances of the three are best in the moments where there’s an easy rapport between them.

Of course, the big deal about Sugarland Express is it was Spielberg’s first time at bat in the big leagues.  Perhaps to his benefit as a novice director, this film feels a bit looser in style than most of his subsequent work.  If somebody had not told me who helmed this, I don’t think I would have suspected it was Spielberg until a moment late in the movie where a mob of fans frantically crosses the road to pack-up their makeshift camp.  It looked almost identical to a scene where people flee the ocean en masse in a little picture he would do next, called Jaws.

Dir: Steve Spielberg

Starring Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks

Watched on Warner Bros. blu-ray