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Ex-con Lou Jean Poplin wants to get her son out of foster care, and she wants it now. Although her husband has only a few months to go before he's released from prison, she convinces him to break out of his low-security pre-release facility. Then to make matters worse they hijack a state trooper's car and hold him hostage as they lead local and federal authorities on a madcap chase through the back roads of Texas. The result is one of the screen's most memorable and thoughtful road pictures, the film that launched Steven Spielberg's career and gave Goldie Hawn one of her most fully realized screen characters.


Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
Based on a story by Barwood, Robbins, Spielberg
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editing: Edward M. Abroms, Verna Fields
Art Direction: Joe Alves
Music: John Williams
Cast: Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean Poplin), Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner), Michael Sacks (Slide), William Atherton (Clovis Poplin), Gregory Walcott (Mashburn), Steve Kanaly (Jessup), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Dean Jones (Policeman at Football Game)
C-110 m.

OVERVIEW The Sugarland Express marked the feature directing debut of Steven Spielberg, one of the most important figures in contemporary Hollywood. Some critics contend that despite his later big box-office successes, this remains his best film. The reality-based dramedy is far removed from blockbusters like E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), as is the film's downbeat ending. But it also fits into his oeuvre in its depiction of ordinary people who find something extraordinary within themselves, like the children in E.T., the police chief in Jaws (1975), the line worker in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the title character in Schindler's List (1993).

The film also reflects a recurring concern in Spielberg's films, the family. The director's parents divorced while he was in his teens, and that trauma resurfaces in many of his films, starting with this tale of a family torn apart by the parents' criminal records. Not only have the leads been separated while one finishes a prison term, but they have lost their infant son to the foster care system, with little hope of getting him back.

This was the beginning of Spielberg's lengthy collaboration with composer John Williams, who has scored every one of his films except The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and The Color Purple (1985).

After rising to stardom on the heels of her success as a dumb blonde on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Goldie Hawn finally got the chance to demonstrate her dramatic range in The Sugarland Express. Many critics consider it her best performance.

The film's disappointing box-office performance may have had a profound effect on Spielberg's career. He would never make such a downbeat or personal film again.

The Sugarland Express brought to an end a cycle of road movies that had started with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. The road movie, which traces a journey that somehow changes the participants, has been a screen staple for decades and traces its literary origins back to the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Although numerous Hollywood films have been built around journeys, it was Bonnie and Clyde that brought the genre to prominence. That film ushered in a series of pictures like Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) that used the road movie as an ironic commentary on American life, with protagonists who search for themselves on the journey only to find something sorely lacking because of the failings of American culture. With its disappointing box office performance and more forthright, humorous and even sentimental approach to Lou Jean and Clovis's journey, The Sugarland Express brought that cycle to an end for several years. Later road films would be significantly less political and ironic.

By Frank Miller

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