"I want my baby back. Now are you gonna help me or not?"
The Sugarland Express
Release Date: April 5, 1974
The Sugarland Express is Steven Spielberg’s first film made expressly for the theatrical screen after years of working in television for Universal Studios. Given the opportunity to move into features (based on the international theatrical success of his 1971 television film Duel), Spielberg chose the true-life tale of events that took place in Texas in 1969 to bring an exciting, yet emotional story to the screen.
Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) organizes and carries off a break from a minimum security prison for her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), who still has four months to go on a petty larceny charge. The need for urgency is that their infant son, Langston, is about to be given out for adoption to a foster couple in Sugarland, Texas, against Lou Jean's will.
In the prison farm parking lot, the Poplins hitch a ride from an elderly couple driving a rickety old Buick. The snail-like pace of the old car attracts the attention of Patrol Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks), who red-lights the vehicle.
Lou Jean and Clovis panic when Slide approaches. Relieving the elderly couple of their automobile, Lou Jean scrambles into the driver’s seat and guns the car down the highway with Slide in hot pursuit. The chase ends when Lou Jean loses control of the Buick and crashes it into a tree. When Slide goes to lend assistance, Lou Jean, assuming the officer knows about the prison escape, grabs his gun. She gives it to Clovis, who forces the officer back into his patrol car despite Slide's warnings that what they plan to do constitutes a felony and possibly a federal kidnapping violation. Holding him at gunpoint, Clovis forces Slide to drive as the fugitive couple pile in alongside him in the newly commandeered vehicle.
After much initial confusion, the Texas Highway Patrol gradually becomes aware that one of their cars and officers have been hijacked, and that Slide is a hostage. Highway Patrol Chief Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) takes personal command of the chase.
Incidents pile onto accidents as the Poplins trek across Texas in the police car, using their hostage to bargain for what they want until, finally with more than 200 police, news media and citizens' cars strung out behind them, they arrive at Sugarland to claim Baby Langston...and their fates.
The Sugarland Express marked a dramatic departure for the Academy Award-winning comedic actress Goldie Hawn. A film of firsts, it also marked the first collaboration between Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams. Their work on the film, of course, would famously lead to one of the longest running creative partnerships in film history as director and composer. Shot on location in Texas around and outside San Antonio, The Sugarland Express employed the brand new, small-form Panaflex camera developed by Panavision, allowing Spielberg and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond to capture innovative shots inside and out on the ever-growing parade of near-constantly moving vehicles.
The film was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown. While it failed to attract attention at the box office, The Sugarland Express certainly caught American film critics' eyes, with Pauline Kael of The New Yorker declaring the film to be "...one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies."
"Spielberg uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way—for humor, and for a physical response to action," wrote Kael. "He could be that rarity among directors—a born entertainer—perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks."
Spielberg's work as director of The Sugarland Express was nominated for the Palme d'Or and awarded for Best Screenplay (along with his co-writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. With the release of his next feature, Jaws, produced by Zanuck and Brown, Steven Spielberg would more than live up to the promise critics observed and enthused about in Duel and The Sugarland Express.
About the Film
About the FilmCAST
- GOLDIE HAWN,
- BEN JOHNSON,
- MICHAEL SACKS,
- WILLIAM ATHERTON
- STEVEN SPIELBERG
- HAL BARWOOD & MATTHEW ROBBINS, STORY BY STEVEN SPIELBERG AND HAL BARWOOD & MATTHEW ROBBINS
- DAVID BROWN,
- RICHARD D. ZANUCK
- VILMOS ZSIGMOND
- JOE ALVES
- EDWARD M. ABROMS,
- VERNA FIELDS
- JOHN WILLIAMS
Where to Watch
- Film Stills
- Production Stills