"It was thirty years ago this very month that Steven Spielberg made his official big-screen directing debut (his 1971 film DUEL being an excellent made-for-TV offering) with THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Even at this early stage in his career, Spielberg's directoral instincts were extremely sharp, and his concentration on the characters is masterful. It's amazing how people sell Spielberg short in this area simply because so many of his films seem to be all about special effects and gee-whiz heroics.Loosely based on events that occurred in Texas in the spring of 1969, the film stars Goldie Hawn as an ex-con mother who springs her reluctant husband (William Atherton) from a prison farm so they can get their infant son back from a foster family that has refused to return custody to Hawn. But when they hijack a Texas state trooper (Michael Sachs) and force him to driver them to the town of Sugarland, they attract far more attention than they bargained for: mass media, hundreds of onlookers, and nearly half of the total number of law enforcement officers in Texas. Veteran character actor Ben Johnson is the lead lawman in this relatively slow-speed chase, occasionally punctuated by redneck sniper gunfire, who sympathizes with Hawn's and Atherton's plight but who also must still perform his duties. It all comes to a climax at Sugarland with a jarring result.Although made for relatively little money (just three million, as opposed to the tens of millions Spielberg would spend on his films in ensuing decades), THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was still only a modest box office hit. Part of that could be attributed to audiences' expectations of seeing Hawn in a frothy comedy following her turn on TV's "Laugh-In" and instead getting a real live actress with intensity. And part of it could also be attributed to the fact that this film's ending isn't exactly sweetness and light. Still, Hawn's performance here is arguably the best she ever gave on the big screen, and Atherton and Sachs do good turns. Equally reliable is Johnson, remembered for his Oscar-winning turn in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 classic THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, but also as a familiar presence in the westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah.Filmed completely on location in Texas, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS features great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, taut editing from Verna Fields, and an excellent Americana score by John Williams (his first for Spielberg). It is a film that can be enjoyed many times over, as is the case for almost everything Spielberg has ever done."
Riveting road movie based on true story
Wayne Klein | My Little Blue Window, USA | 08/22/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
""The Sugarland Express" received good critical reviews but flopped at the box office. Luckily, Spielberg had demonstrated his skill as a director with this film and the TV movie "Duel". Both earned him the chance to direct "Jaws" and the rest, as they say, is history. Based on a true story, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn)convinces her husband Clovis (William Atherton from "Ghostbusters" and "Die Hard")to break out of a minimum security prison even thought he has only a couple of months to go. Their son is being taken away from her and being put into foster care. Lou Jean won't stand for this and she proposes that they kidnap their own son. In the process, the pair end up taking a Texas police officer (Michael Sacks "Slaughter House Five")hostage and are pursued by Texas lawmen led by Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) across the state.
Steven Spielberg's first film gives evidence of his talent and skills as a film director. Although he would later be accused of creating the box office mania that "dumbed down" Summer films into "event films", Spielberg didn't create the popcorn movie genre. Like Hitchcock, Spielberg made many types of films and this, his second, was among his most ambitious early films in terms of scope, technique and themes. Based on a story that Spielberg concocted with screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins ("The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings", "Dragonslayer") from a true story a taunt, often funny and powerful road movie.
The strong performances and well written script gave Spielberg a springboard to dive into a pool of ambitious film techniques. Make no mistake, though, this film isn't just about technique and that's its saving grace. Otherwise, this could have degenerated into just another exploitation film. John Williams' score enhances the tension throughout the script. While Spielberg swimped a number of stunning set ups and ideas for shots from his favorite films here (as he did in "Duel"), he makes them his own by carefully integrating them into the story and adding his own little special quirks to them as well.
"The Sugarland Express" was long overdue for release on DVD. Unfortunately, unlike "Duel", this DVD transfer isn't quite as sharp looking. The colors appear a bit faded and the print is marred with many analog blemishes. It could just be the condition of the negative but, more than likely, these are artifacts that just weren't fixed at the transfer stage. The sound is decent although, again, much more could have been done with it to enhance the score by Williams and sound effects that swirl around the action in many sequences.
The film comes with only a photo gallery and original theatrical trailer. It's surprising that this film didn't get quite the deluxe treatment that "Duel" did for DVD. I'm disappointed that Spielberg chose not to do interview segments on this movie as he did for "Duel". In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that "The Sugarland Express" didn't get more attention. It flopped when first released (while "Duel" garnered huge ratings on TV)and hasn't gained the cult status of some of Spielberg's other less successful films (such as "1941" which has become something of a cult classic). Still, it's disappointing that Spielberg's first big screen film didn't receive the attention and respect it was due. It would be the same if "Citizen Kane" or Hitchcock's "Vertigo" were treated shabbily they were brought out on DVD. While "The Sugarland Express" isn't as important as either one of those films, it has merit all its own and, given Spielberg's blossoming skill as a director later in life, it would seem appropriate to spend the time and money on making this minor classic look and sound its best.
Nevertheless, "The Sugarland Express" will capture your attention. From the sharp, strong performances by Hawn, Atherson, Sacks and Johnson to Spielberg's audacious ambitious shots and the rich, witty screenplay, "The Sugarland Express" becomes more than a rollercoaster ride. It also touches the heart with the tragedy at its core."
Spielberg's 1st Real Movie.
tvtv3 | Sorento, IL United States | 02/02/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Between the fame Spielberg garnered from the success of the tv film DUEL and that first movie blockbuster of all time called JAWS, Spielberg directed another movie. This film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and was his real theatrical debut.
The movie is based on actual real-life events. It tells about the adventures of a woman named Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and her husband, Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) and there attempt to take back their baby from the foster parents who adopted the child while they were both in jail. Lou Jean has had a difficult life and is attempting to start anew, but the State of Texas won't allow her to have her baby back. In an act of focused anger and despair, Lou Jean convinces Clovis to break out of jail and together the duo begin a race across Texas to get back their child. Long before their was O.J. Simpson, there was Lou Jean Poplin and on their journey just about every policeman in the state of Texas and many other nearby states join the "chase" which ends up being probably the longest parade in America history.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was not only Spielberg's feature film debut, but it was also the film that turned Goldie Hawn's career around from that of purely comic to one of dramatic as well. The film displays the begins of the "Spielbergian charm"--the modern equivalent of a Frank Capra picture. However, unlike many of Spielberg's other movies, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS doesn't have the happiest of endings (though some relief is given in the closing comments over the screen). The movie is over 30 years-old, but holds up well. The story is moving, yet not all very sentimental.
Many believe that THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was a flop in theatres. This is not true. The original film earned over $8 million (US) in it's original release which at the time made the movie a modest success. It wasn't until a year later with the release of JAWS that the first $100 million movie would be distributed, setting a new standard of success in Hollywood.
Some other notes of interest: THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was the first movie to feature a tracking shot (front seat to back) and a 360-degree pan with dialogue from within a car. Also, Spielberg bought the shot-up 1973 Dodge Polara, Texas Department of Public Safety car at the end of filming. Rumor has it that it's still in his garage to this day.
Overall, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is a moving film. The talent that Spielberg later perfected in later movies is evident throughout the movie. Watching this film, it makes me wonder why it took so long for the Hollywood establishment to take Spielberg serious as a director. Besides it's footnote in movie history, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is a movie worth watching on it's own merit and might just bring a tear to your eye."
A great Spielberg debut, a cracking good movie
Great Movie Addict | New York City | 08/20/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Thankfully we have a decent widescreen DVD of Spielberg's dazzling theatrical debut. It was a box office flop in 1974, probably because it didn't appeal to the `Easy Rider' set and because it makes satiric jabs at populist sentiment. Notably, its bittersweet ending poses sticky philosophical questions, distilled in the final, haunting line (I won't give it away here, you have to hear it for yourself). The hair raising finale presents the viewer with an odd Spielberg finish; who were the winners, who were the losers? And anyway, who in 1974 wanted Goldie in a superb but non-comic role? One of Spielberg's trademarks is tight visual and verbal economy. The opening shot alone makes ironic comments and transmits myriad detail, all within seconds. It's followed by one ingeniously inventive scene after another. A little slow to start, the action quickly gains momentum. Tension never stops building, spiked now and then by sudden moments of revelation and discovery. The acting is terrific (Spielberg uses local rubes better than any director around), and Ben Johnson's performance is one of unerring precision. HE steals the whole show. This was a most auspicious directorial debut and was a hit at Cannes (the well-honed script won first place). Spielberg knows how to get viewers involved and keep them there. As one who grew up down South I can testify that Spielberg captured the ambiance of the Texas countryside and people with gratifying authenticity. This is flawless work, among Spielberg's best. Hopefully this DVD will revive a film that has long deserved more attention. The DVD image is a bit soft in spots, and there's only a measly trailer for extras, but it's still a great ride for the money. Essential."
Spielberg movie with a great story and excellent acting
Renee R. | Los Angeles | 05/13/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie had a compelling story and excellent acting with the added bonus of Steven Spielberg as the director. The story centers around a young woman named Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn), who has lost custody of her baby son because of her criminal record. She decides the only way to get him back is to convince her husband Clovis (William Atherton) to escape from the Pre-release Center where he is serving the final four months of his prison term. Clovis reluctantly agrees after Lou Jean threatens to divorce him if he doesn't go along with her plan. Unfortunately after Clovis escapes, the two only have bad luck. The older couple they hitch a ride with get stopped by Highway Patrol Officer Slide (Michael Sacks). Lou Jean and Clovis then steal the older couple's car, wreck the car and kidnap Officer Slide and force him to drive them to Sugarland, where their son is living. The remainder of the movie chronicles what happens to the three on their trip. How the media transforms the couple into a cause celebre and how the police have to not only deal with the fugitives but with the media and the public, who have rallied behind the pair. As Lou Jean, Goldie Hawn gives a heartfelt and sympathetic performance to the role of a women who refuses to see the futility of her actions and is blinded by her desire to get her son back at any cost. William Atherton does a good job with a difficult role. He conveys the fact that Clovis did what Lou Jean wanted becasue of his love for her and his fear of losing her. Michael Sacks gave diminsion to a character which in lesser hands might have come across as your basic by-the-book-cop. (It's a mystery to me why he disappeared from acting.) Spielberg's direction gives you a real feel for the expansive Texas countryside which contrasts with the fact that for most of the movie these characters are confined in cars. Spielberg uses evrything at his disposal to highlight and backdrop his story - the sunsets, the open highway and local color are all used to optimum effect. Overall - A MUST SEE"