In 1969, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) arrives at the Jester Unit pre-release facility to visit her husband Clovis (William Atherton). He only has four months left on his sentence, but Lou Jean notifies him that welfare is coming to take their beloved Baby Langston and put him in a foster home. She’s just been released from prison herself and has been deemed an unfit mother.
Lou Jean has worn extra clothes and after disguising Clovis, sneaks him out of pre-release to retrieve Baby Langston from the town of Sugarland. They hitch a ride with an old timer, but he drives so slow, rookie Texas Highway Patrolman Slide (Michael Sacks) pulls them over. Lou Jean takes off. She crashes the car, but gets her hands on the rookie’s revolver and hijacks the patrolman and his vehicle.
Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) is summoned to take command of the pursuit. He refuses to endanger the patrolman by allowing Texas Rangers snipers to fire into the car. Instead, he takes his time and attempts to negotiate with Clovis as the convoy makes its way towards the border. The incident quickly turns into a public sensation.
After directing a highly touted TV movie-of-the-week called Duel, 25-year-old Steven Spielberg spent months preparing his first feature film. Titled White Lightning and set to star Burt Reynolds, Spielberg dropped out, later claiming no matter how good his work, it would be a Burt Reynolds movie, not a Steven Spielberg film.
Spielberg had a news item about husband and wife fugitives who’d kidnapped a state trooper, commandeered his car, and led police on a chase through the backroads of Texas. Universal chairman Lew Wasserman was skeptical. He thought the days of Easy Rider were over, but told producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to go ahead. Spielberg enlisted Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins to write the script.
Instead of a producer pressuring the director to make the movie more commercial, it was the other way around. Spielberg went back to Zanuck after filming had wrapped with a new idea: the couple should make it to Mexico with their baby. Zanuck told Spielberg to stick with the ending he’d written, which was downbeat, but historically accurate. The film was not a success at the box office.
Pauline Kael called The Sugarland Express “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies” and it is. Working with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, editor Verna Fields, and composer John Williams for the first time, Spielberg enables the film with a visual panache that could be the envy of any filmmaker. He used new, compact Panaflex cameras that permitted complicated setups to be done from moving cars, and that alone gives this a kick.
Instead of making a “hot pursuit” movie, the tone of the film is dignified throughout, but unfortunately, it’s woefully miscast. Ben Johnson is perfect for this, but Goldie Hawn got on my nerves from the get-go. Her Blondie routine is all wrong for the role of a Texas fugitive. Her and Atherton’s characters are written as hayseeds and elicit nothing in the way of sympathy. I was rooting for the snipers.
The geography is the most ridiculous in Texas film history, with Spielberg not only ignoring the real life chase, but relocating “Sugar Land” from the suburbs of Houston to somewhere out on the Rio Grande. That’s a minor gripe. The movie looks great, but I really didn’t care about what I was watching. Shooting locations included San Antonio, Pleasanton, Floresville and Del Rio.
goatdog’s movies gives The Sugarland Express 3.5 goats. “Critics who dismiss Spielberg as the manipulative and goody-goody director of sentimental Hollywood fluff would be hard-pressed to see that aspect of him in this film.”
Needcoffee.com has no truck for The Sugarland Express at all. “Spielberg completists who have never caught it might want to rent it, but the rest of us can avoid it with a clear conscience.”
“Spielberg would not make another film as mature as The Sugarland Express for another 20 years,” says The DVD Journal.