The Sugarland Express

Nevermind Duel; The Sugarland Express is Steven Spielberg’s actual cinematic debut. (Duel was a TV movie, remember?) It was released in 1974 and was well received, although I don’t know about box offic performance. Later, I read in Empire how one critic commented that “watching (Malick’s) Badlands vs. Sugarland Express was seeing the difference between the artist and the smartass” or words to that effect. But Terence Malick has made three movies in 25 years (he’s currently working on a new project; its estimated opening should be no later than autumn of 2017) and Steven Spielberg is…well, Steven Spielberg.

Interestingly, few people I know have ever seen Sugarland Express, or are at all aware that it exists. A shame, as it’s quite a little corker. But then, it did well upon its release, I understand, so what do I know? I wasn’t even born then!

Goldie Hawn stars as Luann and Willam Atherton as her hubby, Clovis; Clovis is in jail. Luann has just been in jail (we don’t know what for) but has been released. The movie opens with her visiting Clovis in prison to tell him that she considers their marriage over. Unless he’s willing to escape with her; Their baby has been placed in a foster home and custody’s about to become permanent. Luann wants Clovis to come with and convince the foster parents to let them keep the baby. They escape (it’s a very minimum security prison, it seems) and catch a ride with a fellow inmate’s parents. At first Clovis doesn’t want to – quite reasonably, too: he only has four months left to serve; he only comes along because of Luann. As we learn throughout the movie, he is willing to let the baby go, as long as he can be with Luann. They get pulled over and before you can say “Hal Needham”, a chase ensues, cars are wrecked and they have kidnapped officer Slide, a highway patrolman. The race is on.

I’ve been interested in seeing this movie for a long time, and I wasn’t disapppointed, even if my roomate said “blah” after it was over. Like Badlands, the movie also looks at the American cult of outlaws; as they get closer to Sugarland, more and more people show up to cheer them on; one town even has a parade for them, and the fugitives find themselves as heroes, almost. Spielberg is, no matter what one says, not a stupid director. Yes, he’s fucked up along the way, and he’s boringly PC these days (although Minority Report, for all its obvious flaws, was the best future noir since Blade Runner, in my humble opinion), but when he’s on, he’s on. Sugarland Express is obviously a smaller movie than what we’re used to from him now: He was just a hungry young director then, Jaws and superstardom yet to happen. But his trademwarks are there: The sheer technical skill and the obvious confidence on display, the swift direction and expert pacing. And, like in so many of Spielberg’s movies, the protagonists are not really adults. They are (both are 25), but they are cut from the same cloth as Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters. Luann is somewhat child-like and doesn’t quite fathom that jailbreak and kidnapping probably won’t be points in their favour to get their baby back. Clovis knows this, but can’t quite bring himself to stop Luann either; he loves her. The point is rammed home by the captain himself: “Dammit, they’re just kids”, he says at one point. I have a thought that Luann’s child-mind might be further caused from the stress of having lost her baby –that in fact, she’s on the border of LaLa-land the whole time. It would explain some things about her behaviour and somewhat tenuous grip on reality.

The tentative friendship they strike up with their hostage, officer Slide, is handled very believingly. Moments such as when Clovis asks Slide if he could get a job as a patrolman and Slide stutters “With a record, you can’t. I think it’s againt the law” are genuine and often moving. In another scene, for example, Slide is handcuffed in the back seat of the car while they sleep: listening to the police radio, he hears Luann’s father (he’s been brought in to try and talk her out of it) putting her down and calling her names. When Luann returns, Slide asks her if she could turn off the radio, in order to spare her feelings. Their friendship, such as it is, is driven part by getting to know each other, part from pitying them. These are fine moments that show Spielberg is, in fact, not just a smartass hack, but a fine director fully capable of real emotion, rather than ersatz ones. Seen opposite Malick’s Badlands, its immediate parallel, I frankly like the characters in Sugarland Express better. Martin Sheen was a psycho, pure and simple, and it’s difficult to sympathise with that, no matter is he has a James Dean fixation or no. I’m not saying Badlands isn’t a terrific movie which everyone should run and see pronto, because it is. It’s just that Clovis and Luann are a lot more likable.

I also like the fact that the police for once are sympathetic: They do their damndest to stop the fugitives, but also don’t really want to hurt them. (“I’ve been on the force for 18 years, and I haven’t killed anyone yet…I aim to keep it that way” says the captain) This is one of the things that give the movies its emotional impact: we like all the main players and we want them to just get along; to sit down and have a drink in the end. The fact that we know there must be the inevitable showdown makes it all the more tense. And isn’t it weird that once upon a time, policemen were portrayed as dedicated and honest, you know, as good guys? In the end, Clovis has his gun returned to him by his captain: “I expect you’ll want this back” says the captain and walks away. Slide calls after him “They weren’t ever going to use it” but gets no reply. It’s a sad moment, and we all know that nobody really won. I dowish the media/fame aspect had been developed a bit more, but at the same time, I see why it wasn’t. This is a character study, not a media satire, so it’s wisely kept in the background.

Goldie Hawn liked the script enough to break her sabbatical following her Academy Award nomination. It was based on a real event, though I don’t know how much of it has been altered. Still, in real life, Luann served 15 months, but convinced the state that she was a fit mother and was granted custody after she was released. William Atherton, probably most known as the creep who tried to shut down Ghostbusters and the smarmy reporter in the first two Die Hard movies, plays Clovis very well; he’s the perfect mix of nervous and reckless. Kudos also to John Williams (of course) for a different musical score: no huge symphonic movements, just some twangy and dusty harmonica tones with some oddly modern-sounding backbeats; a bit like Ry Cooder, but not as familiarly dull, if that makes sense.

Spielberg went on to make Jaws after this; nothing else needs to be said about his career, except that it would be wonderful to see him do another movie like this, where people are the special effects. Barring his two amazing war movies, this (and I guess Jaws) might just be his most human movie. There are none of the overwrought and often misplaced histrionics that mars even his best work, such as Schindler’s List. (Partly, I think, because he doesn’t quite trust the audience to be moved sufficiently on their own –strange, given his skill, but perhaps stemming from the belated artistic recognition.) It’s not perfect, but it’s the sort of movie rarely seen these days; an action drama with actual heart and real characters. It’s also very ’70s American auteur, kissing cousins with Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde et al. So give it a spin.


  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Cast: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton,
22.09.2003 • Permalink