Famous Firsts: The Sugarland Express (1974)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

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Debut film of: Steven Spielberg, director

By Roderick Heath

The 26-year-old wunderkind who had wowed with Duel (1971), a TV movie that received limited theatrical release in Europe, received his first shot at feature directing under the aegis of Richard F. Zanuck and David Brown. The Sugarland Express underperformed badly at the box office (the bad news came in on the first day of shooting Jaws), and Sugarland is still treated as a footnote in the director’s expansive oeuvre. But The Sugarland Express, loosely based on a real incident from 1969 and written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins from a story they wrote with Spielberg, demands more than a casual glance. From any other director it would be a notable film, which might explain why Zanuck and Brown let him helm their next tricky production, Jaws (1975), the film that gave birth to Spielberg the phenomenon.

Whilst Jaws represents the new model Hollywood, Sugarland is a film from an era that was ending—an era of open-road movies with a cynical, anti-establishment bent, rooted in folksy Americana, as disparate and yet of a common generation as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), Bad Company (1972), Badlands (1973), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). It’s this aspect that makes Sugarland most interesting in terms of the Famous Firsts program. What tendencies does it reveal that marks it, and the director’s later career, as so divergent, from, say, Terence Malick’s, despite the similar subject matter of their early works?

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The differences are not hard to discern. Whilst it begins with a similar mood of a blasted, lonely, inhospitable land, Sugarland doesn’t develop the veneer of alienation and poeticism of Rafelson and Malick, or geared-up pulp fury. Sugarland is shot with clear, unaffected rigor, the artless artfulness of great American directors like Hawks, Ford, and Preston Sturges. The film tells a warmhearted tale that counteracts the mood of Easy Rider without actually contradicting its message. Spielberg is friendly towards his protagonists whilst admitting that it’s their own refusal to look facts in the face that leads to their downfall. Whilst the heroes of the other films are cursed by a desire, or by fate, to stand out and alone, Spielberg’s dopey heroes, Clovis (William Atherton) and Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), are asserting their right to be normal, to be a family. As is so often the case with Spielberg, a family spontaneously forms in response to adversity and includes their hapless hostage, state trooper Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), and even a stern patriarch, Police Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). Tanner’s efforts to prevent the situation from ending bloodily resemble a wise grandfather attempting to corral the high spirits of silly grandchildren.

The story kicks off with Lou Jean’s visit to Clovis, waiting out the last few months of his one-year sentence for shoplifting at a pre-release center in Texas. Lou Jean was sent down for the same offence, released earlier, and is now faced with the permanent loss of their son to the Loobys (Merrill Connally and Louise Latham), adoptive parents who live in Sugarland County, on the far side of the state. Lou Jean threatens to leave Clovis unless she agrees to bust out with her—it only requires her to change clothes and walk out the gate—and go to take back their baby. That’s the limit of her thinking. Lou Jean is entirely a creature of instinct. Her primeval desire to regain her son outweighs everything else. Clovis is her adoring, good-natured patsy. They catch a ride away from the center with the elderly, ornery parents of another inmate. A series of mishaps results in them taking Slide captive and fleeing in his patrol car, the object of a crisis that has every cop, patrolman, trooper, marshal, ranger, reservist, and dog catcher in Texas on their tail.

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An aspect of Spielberg’s early work that comes into sharper focus—taking into account Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979)—is their vision of America not as a capricious, clapped-out country wearied by Vietnam and Watergate, but as a sassy, energetic, ebullient place, dogged by corruption and iniquity, but still full of raucous, everyday life. The American-life-as-carnival vision underlies the comedic moments of all those films, and it’s quite often more than a little dangerously anarchic, for example, the beach crowds and the gun-happy bumpkins of Jaws who treat a killer shark hunt as the world’s greatest kegger, or the civil defense volunteers in 1941 who shoot up downtown L.A. when they think the city is under attack. Clovis and Lou Jean’s odyssey draws out crowds of gawkers and supporters who cheer them on with democratic aplomb. Twits who want to get in on the action make it a bigger sideshow, like the Louisiana cops who attempt to ram the hostage car and instead collect half the vehicles in the trailing fleet, thereby allowing Clovis, Lou Jean, and Slide to escape. They’re found hiding in a used car lot by a pair of retired reservists who proceed to shoot up the place, less a proper gunfight than a thigh-slapping good time for the good ole boys.

Spielberg employs an attuned eye and ear in The Sugarland Express to provide a texture that would give Jaws and Close Encounters much of their effectiveness—the rich sense of a languidly fecund, everyday world, full of ice-cream-cramming kids, cussing old folks, tinny transistor radios perpetually ringing out bubblegum pop, and people who’d drive a hundred miles for a cheap thrill. Spielberg’s early style is sleek and naturalistic. If, in the late ’80s, his style became excessively glossy and arthritic by leaving behind his essentially new wave roots, it was still a vital component of his style in the ’70s.

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Spielberg’s heroes, male and female, young and old, are usually in search of a grail of some variety, arming themselves with varying levels of self-delusion to protect against the cruelest facts of life. They take journeys that have no guaranteed end quite simply because they can’t afford to stay still. The quest is vital, even if the ultimate goal often is a delirious enigma. The prototypical Spielberg everyman, Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel, is driving theoretically to reach a business meeting, but he’s really in search of his lost masculine sense of propulsion that will enable him to return to the family that has no use for him. Lou Jean and Clovis certainly fit this mould. Neither thinks much further than the next move, and whilst both prove canny—Clovis especially, as he dismantles every move the cops throw at him—they’re clueless when it comes to the world at large. Adult and child behavior rarely have a neat dividing line in Spielberg’s films, especially in the infantile nature of American pop culture. The grind of gears when clashing perspectives meet is realized in the film’s strongest scene: as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner cartoon on a drive-in movie screen, Clovis registers the ridiculous violence that befalls Wile E. Coyote as prescient of their own approaching disaster.

Another consistent Spielberg theme taking root is his version of the ghost in the machine, the process that, once begun, cannot be stopped, even by those who propagate it. Even the Indiana Jones films are, in their absurd way, illustrations of snowballing cause and effect. Be it a monstrous shark, dinosaur, Nazi tank, or alien killing machine, force always consumes itself through its own momentum. Usually this process aids his heroes, but in Sugarland (and this is probably why the film flopped), the Poplins set fate in motion themselves and leave it for others to try to stop. Tanner gives them every opportunity to escape this fate, but they continue to drive toward it, held together by their aim as much as society is held together by the laws that must stop them. As in Catch Me If You Can (2003) and The Terminal (2004), where Spielberg returned to this sort of material, the clash between individualism and authoritarianism is essentially a friction of temperaments.

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It’s not, ultimately, an innocent joyride. Clovis and Lou Jean put lives in danger, and Clovis, despite knowing better, is more frightened of crushing Lou Jean’s hopes than of police bullets. They find something harsh beneath the surface of their nation. A group of FBI marksmen offer their services to Captain Tanner, which at first he spurns, but eventually accepts, placing them in the Loobys’ house. Mr. Looby hands over his own rifle, requesting that they “shoot the sonofabitch” with it. When Clovis and Lou Jean finally arrive at the house, Slide spots the trap and urgently pleads with Clovis to hand over the gun and end it now. The last 20 minutes are a model of slow-burn tension, until the frantic explosion of the characters—Slide’s appeals to Clovis; Lou Jean wailing first in betrayed rage at Clovis who hesitates, and then, realizing the danger at last, calling for his return. Clovis gets a bullet in the gut for his pains, but he manages to drive the car through the border checkpoint and crash in the mud of the Rio Grande before expiring. Lou Jean is left a shell-shocked wreck, and Slide and Tanner stand on the riverbank shaking their heads in sorry bewilderment.

Sugarland is a fine film, and works rather better than some of Spielberg’s subsequent attempts to balance whimsy, drama, and sentiment. Perhaps the Spielbergian quality it lacks, however, is also one of his strongest—his gift for compulsive cinematic movement. Sugarland is an artful sketch by one of the screen’s great suspense mongers, a simple film that beguiles and then concludes on more of a forlorn note than a tragic one. The final title card tells us that after her imprisonment, Lou Jean does recover her son, a sign that the desperate display that has underpinned these whimsical and tragic events has proven something. As he often would later in his films, sometimes to the point of overstraining, Spielberg emphasizes a singular human ability to survive.

Grade
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