The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express is classic Spielberg and some of the best work of Goldie Hawn, it is a must have for any collection.

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Anyone that has watched the nature channels will know that if a mother animal senses danger for her offspring she will become an erratic danger to those around her, nothing keeps the mother bear from her cub. This trait has been demonstrated in the human and often used as the plot for a film but rarely as well as it is done in The Sugarland Express. Based on real events in Texas, 1959, the film chronicles the desperate plight of Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) a young wife and mother that upon finding out the state welfare department is moving to take away her three year old son, breaks her husband (William Atherton) out of prison, kidnaps a Texas State police officer (Michael Sacks) leading the entire Texas police on a cross country chase. What begins as a simple plan, sneak clothing into her husband, convince him to go along and escape to reclaim their child shortly becomes a meandering run through the country side of rural Texas. The husband Clovis is not really in prison, he’s in pre-release, sitting through the last four months of his sentence, but he gives in to the classic persuasive techniques employed by Lou Jean. Harlan, the police office, is as inexperienced as the kidnappers. The underlying fact here is nobody knows what they are doing.

Some of the more real aspects of the actual case are somewhat glossed over but enough remain to lend some credibility to the story line. Lou Jean lost the custody of her child for good reason. She was also in prison when welfare took the baby. Some hints are given that she may have been prostituting herself making a strong case for an unfit mother. Clovis is also not the sharpest knife in the draw. With only four months left to his sentence he was crazy to break out from the minimum security facility. Since these events took place long before most modern forms of entertainment the kidnapping soon becomes a local event. Since the media gave a sympathetic spin to the affair Lou Jean becomes a folk hero, crowds line the road to cheer her on, complete with marching bands in attendance.

The story is approached not as a crime drama, the brilliance of The Sugarland Express is that it refuses to take itself seriously al the while forging a very human, captivating tale. There is something that appeals to the American audience about cheering on the underdog. Even though they are criminals we sit there and root for them every chance we get.

In the early seventies there where many that felt that Goldie Hawn’s Oscar win for Cactus Flower was a fluke. How could anyone take this giggling blonde from Laugh In seriously. The Sugarland Express was her return to acting after taking about a year off and it was some return. Hawn demonstrated not only an innate sense of comic timing but a true understanding of the craft of acting. She balances innocence with cunning in her presentation of Lou Jean. Hawn uses her lithe frame to great advantage making her perfect for physical comedy. She commands the screen with and understated presence.

The Sugarland Express was one of the first feature films for actor William Atherton. It helped to set his career as the buffoon in motion. In his roles in such films as Ghostbusters and Die Hard he is the man we love to laugh at and hate. Here he plays Clovis as a man driven by love and blinded to reality. He is a child in a man’s body, easily manipulated, especially by Lou Jean. Michael Sacks is perfect as Officer Harlan. New to the job he still believes that his training will help him through this mess. He has confidence in that training although he sees no evidence that it every considered such a predicament.

For his first theatrical feature release The Sugarland Express made quite a splash for writer/director Steven Spielberg. He took what he learn in his television years, including his TV film Duel, and built upon it. He also began assembling a faithful crew that would follow him to his bigger, well known films. Although only 26 at the time Spielberg already had a keen sense of how to create a film, his pacing reflected rural Texas, easygoing and purposeful.

For what is essentially a chase film Spielberg throws out Hollywood trends and takes his time to build an emotional connection with the audience. He even manages some nice pop culture references such as a scene that shows a roadrunner cartoon, a perfect representation of The Sugarland Express, the comic, futile chase. Every scene is perfectly framed. The use of lighting, the play of shadows against the light is done better by this 26 year old than most directs could do after decades of working. Spielberg pulls us into the plight of this young couple and their hostage without ever insult their characters, or more importantly, us, the audience. The Sugarland Express is a wonderful chance to see how the director of some of America’s most beloved films began to hone his craft.

Universal has done a good job of presenting this often over looked film. The video is provided in anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Occasionally you might see The Sugarland Express chopped and cropped on late night cable but this presentation shows everything that Spielberg wanted you to see. It is a powerful case of preserving the original vision of the director. The color palette is reasonably good but somewhat muted. For me it just heightens the sense of the dusty, lonely roads of Texas and added to the feel of The Sugarland Express.

The audio is an unexceptional Dolby stereo remix of the original mono soundtrack. I found that acceptable since The Sugarland Express is for the heart not the ears as the rest of the Hollywood chase films are. Unfortunately, The Sugarland Express has nothing in the way of extras. There is the almost obligatory trailer but I would have greatly enjoyed some behind the scenes interaction between Spielberg and Hawn.

On the up side The Sugarland Express is a film that can stand on its own without the added bells and whistles. The Sugarland Express is classic Spielberg and some of the best work of Goldie Hawn, The Sugarland Express is a must have for any collection.

Movie Review of The Sugarland Express by Doug MacLean of

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