Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin
William Atherton as Clovis Michael Poplin
Michael Sacks as Patrolman Maxwell Slide
Ben Johnson as Captain Harlin Tanner
Gregory Walcott as Patrolman Ernie Mashburn
Steve Kanaly as Patrolman Jessup
Louise Latham as Mrs. Looby
Harrison Zanuck as Baby Langston Poplin
A.L. Camp as Mr. Alvin T. Nocker
Jessie Lee Fulton as Mrs. Nocker
Dean Smith as Russ Berry
Ted Grossman as Dietz
Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
Dolby Digital 2.0
French and Spanish Subtitles
Running Time: 1 Hr. 50 Minutes
This film was Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature. It was originally released in 1974 and was based on a true story.
When Lou Jean Poplin gets out of jail, she goes to pick up her son who is in foster care. However, after dealing with tons of red tape and bureaucracy, she finds out that she is not going to be allowed to get her son back. Panicked, she goes to her husband, Clovis Michael Poplin, who is also in a Texas jail with only 4 months left in his sentence. She convinces him to sneak out of the low security prison and go get their son back.
Shortly after getting out of jail, the two run afoul of rookie Texas Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide. After a brief chase, they end up taking him hostage. Soon a greater portion of the Texas Highway Patrol descends on them as they begin a slow speed chase to Sugar Land, Texas where the baby is living with foster parents. Along the way they become more and more of a media sensation. The situation continues to spin more and more out of control, but will the Poplin’s be able to get their son back?
The Sugarland Express is rated PG.
As you’re probably already aware, I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg. Despite this, I had never seen The Sugarland Express. That surprises even me because it is a film of interest to me in so many ways. It was Spielberg’s first theatrical film. It was the first movie where he collaborated with John Williams (another favorite of mine). It featured strong performances by Goldie Hawn and Ghostbusters’ William Atherton. Throw on top of that the fact that it was filmed just a few miles away from my house and you see why it should have been on my “Must See” list. After having seen it, though, I found it to be more of a cinematic curiosity rather than any sort of classic.
The Sugarland Express (and for the record, it’s “Sugar Land, TX”, not “Sugarland, TX”) starts out pretty strong. There’s a fair amount of comedy as Lou Jean and Clovis rather ineptly go on the run. There are some hilarious scenes with a slow driving old couple. There are some funny bits with a drunken old passenger in the back of the patrolman’s car as they go on a chase. As the movie progresses, an amusingly high number of patrol cars follow the Poplins in their low speed chase. There are enough to make O.J. jealous. All through the film you can see camera shots and acting moments that became Spielberg trademarks throughout his career. Unfortunately, the end of the film takes a rather dark turn and The Sugarland Express changes from a lighthearted romp to a disturbing commentary on the media, law enforcement, and social services. This may hurt your enjoyment of the film.
The acting in the movie is decent. Goldie Hawn is shown in a little more dramatic light though she is still portrayed as a ditz. She relentlessly believes she’s going to get her son back to the point of being insane. This only becomes apparent late in the movie. William Atherton is amusing as Clovis Michael Poplin. It’s quite a different character from his later role as the bad guy in Ghostbusters. His hopeless devotion to Lou Jean, despite being a realist, is intriguing. You eventually want to shake him and say, “You idiot! Don’t listen to her!” Michael Sacks is also good as the rookie Patrolman Maxwell Slide. He transforms through the film from a by-the-book officer to a man caught up in the media hype of his situation. Ben Johnson is also memorable as the tough, no-nonsense Captain Harlin Tanner. Johnson plays him with the right mixture of cowboy and humanity.
The cinematography of Spielberg is quite impressive. He’s able to make this rather unimpressive portion of Texas look beautiful, even in the middle of the fall or winter. His camera setups and directing reinforce what a blossoming talent he was back then. His work is beautifully complimented by John Williams’ score. It’s one of his more unique soundtracks and it features a sleepy, small town feel. Harmonics solos by Toots Thielemans help to add to this atmosphere.
Overall, if you’re any kind of fan of John Williams, Steven Spielberg, or Goldie Hawn, then this is required viewing for you.
There are no bonus features included on this DVD.
The Bottom Line:
The Sugarland Express starts out as a fun comedy but the ending is a bit of a downer. However, the history behind it in regards to Steven Spielberg and John Williams make it required viewing.