Recently released from prison, ex-convict Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn) springs her husband Clovis (Atherton) from pre-release when she learns that their infant toddler is about to be adopted by his foster carers. While escaping however, they’re forced to take a highway patrolman (Sacks) hostage, leading a tough captain (Johnson), a procession of police cars and a growing media frenzy to follow them across country towards Sugarland…
Notable as Steven Spielberg’s first ‘proper’ feature (after the successful made-for-TV thriller Duel), The Sugarland Express helped catapult the 27-year-old director from television talent to fully-fledged filmmaker. Staying on the open highway, it’s a simple chase movie which veers between light comedy and serious character drama, while ushering in the end of the anti-establishment era with its outlaws-on-the-run plot. Though well-made and full of promise, Spielberg’s debut is perhaps more ordinary and unremarkable than one might imagine, as the cautious beard-to-be searches for his directorial voice.
Of course, a few of the trademarks are there; such as the small-town middle-America setting, familiar camera moves and sprinkling of nice moments (see Clovis providing the sound effects for a Road Runner cartoon). But whilst the themes of parental separation and broken families are unquestionably pure Spielberg (is there anything more Spielberg?), here, unusually, we see things from the adult’s viewpoint and not the child’s. Not nearly as sentimental as his later work would become, it’s also surprising (slight spoiler ahead) how bleak and realistic the finale is.
Crucially, Sugarland marks Spielberg’s first collaboration with celebrated scorer John Williams, and it’s Williams’ harmonica theme which gives the movie its folksy soul. Both a young Goldie Hawn and William Atherton (who’d become known for villainous weasel roles) work well as the delusional white trash couple who eventually befriend Michael Sacks’ highway patrolman, but the best performance belongs to Ben Johnson’s determined police captain.
While perhaps more ordinary and less Spielbergy than you might imagine, The Sugarland Express remains interesting as a low-key debut which sees a visionary filmmaker searching for his voice.