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The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express(1974)

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teaser The Sugarland Express (1974)


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.

OVERVIEWThe 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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After scoring with the television movie Duel (1971), about a driver on a cross-country trip stalked by a semi, and making his film debut with a movie about cars director Steven Spielberg knew he had to get away from cars for his next film to avoid being typecast. That helped him decide to film Jaws (1975), the killer shark thriller set mostly on a small island and a boat.

Although he started his film career with a bang in Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and The Sugarland Express, Michael Sacks retired from acting in 1984. Since then, he has held a variety of positions in the investment world related to technological development.

Ila Faye Dent, the woman on whom Goldie Hawn's character was modeled, was sentenced to five years in prison for her part in the events depicted. She was released after five months to care for her ailing mother and her children and eventually found a job as a dietitian at a Holiday Inn in Livingston, TX. She passed away in 1992.

When O.J. Simpson led Los Angeles police on a long, slow chase as on-lookers lined the highways to watch, more than one reporter compared it to the action in The Sugarland Express.

By Frank Miller

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In May 1969, ex-convict Robert Dent and his wife, Ila Faye, kidnapped State Trooper Kenneth Crone and drove from Port Arthur, TX, to Wheelock in his police car, with police pursuing them sometimes at speeds as high as 95 miles per hour. At one point more than 90 police cars and press vehicles were following the stolen car as interested locals lined the highway to watch and, in many cases, cheer the Dents on. All Dent wanted was the chance to see his children, who had been taken from him and his wife and put into foster care. He agreed to release Crone if law officials would bring the children to his father-in-law's house and let him see them for 15 minutes. Instead, he walked into an ambush. When he failed to lower his gun when ordered, the police and FBI shot him dead. The whole event started when police stopped Dent for not dimming his high beams while passing their car, and he and his wife fled into the woods nearby. When Crone answered a call from a rancher who said two people had come to his home claiming to have been robbed by hitchhikers, the victims turned out to be the Dents, who then kidnapped him and stole his vehicle.

Steven Spielberg was drawn to the event by its similarities to the Billy Wilder cult classic Ace in the Hole (1951), about a reporter (Kirk Douglas) who turns a small-town story about a man trapped in a cave into a national sensation that draws tourists and onlookers from around the nation to a small Texas town. As Spielberg would later say, "I liked the idea of people rallying behind a media event, not knowing who the characters are or what they're about but just supporting them...and that sparks a good deal of good old American sentimentality." (Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg: Interviews)

Spielberg first brought the story to Universal in 1969, but they turned him down, feeling it was too downbeat. As Spielberg's reputation as a television director grew, particularly with his classic telefeature Duel (1971), he developed a friendship with studio executive Jennings Lang, who assigned him to work on the script that would become The Sugarland Express with young writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins. They developed an outline that Lang agreed to put into development in 1972. After doing some research in Texas, Barwood and Robbins wrote a first draft in 13 days. The studio then decided to back out of the project.

While pitching ideas at 20th Century-Fox, Spielberg had met the studio's then head, Richard D. Zanuck. Shortly after, Zanuck left Fox to pursue independent production with partner David Brown. While they were setting up production, Spielberg's agent sent them the script for what was then called Carte Blanche, which they agreed they wanted to do. A few weeks later, they signed a multi-picture deal with Universal and revived the project there.

On Spielberg's suggestion, Barwood and Robbins made the convict's wife the film's central figure. To add to the drama, they also had her break him out of prison four months before his scheduled release to kidnap their child from his foster family.

Tired of being typecast as a dumb blonde, a type that had launched her career on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and brought her an Oscar® for Cactus Flower (1969), Goldie Hawn had been turning down scripts for a year when Spielberg approached her about starring in The Sugarland Express. She was so impressed with the script she agreed to work for a fraction of her usual salary. Signing her was a huge boon to the production, since studio executives had been pressuring Spielberg to sign a major female star as box-office insurance.

In casting Clovis and Slide, Spielberg was looking for two actors who bore some resemblance to each other, both physically and in terms of attitude. He wanted to create the feeling that they were similar characters whose lives had carried them in separate directions. He got that with relative newcomers William Atherton and Michael Sacks.

Knowing he was working with a tight budget, Spielberg left little room for error in his pre-production planning. He hired a graphic artist to sketch out the action on an old map taped to the wall of his hotel room on location. That gave him a birds-eye view of the action as his characters led the police through miles of Texas back roads.

By Frank Miller

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Production began on January 15, 1973, and continued through June 1, with the film shot entirely on location in Texas.

Thinking he needed to give director Steven Spielberg a chance to get his feet wet on his first feature, producer Richard D. Zanuck instructed the production manager to start the film with relatively simple shots. He also decided to get to the location late that morning so that Spielberg could establish control of the set. When he arrived, however, he discovered the director had set up one of the film's most complicated shots, which he pulled off just fine.

During shooting, Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had breakfast almost every morning to discuss the work for that day. They agreed to give the film a documentary feel and screened numerous documentaries at night to find ways of solving problems on the set. Zsigmond's practice of using mostly natural lighting helped a great deal in that direction.

Spielberg shot the film in continuity. That made it easier to control production costs, as the size of the entourage following Lou Jean and Clovis grew steadily through the course of the film. It also helped the actors develop their characters more fully.

Spielberg shot the prison break where it actually took place, at the Jester State Prison in Sugar Land, TX, a pre-release facility.

The Sugarland Express marked the first use of a compact Panaflex camera developed by Panavision Corporation. The smaller, lighter camera made it possible for Spielberg to capture complicated shots from within the police car. These included the first tracking shot from front seat to back and the first 360-degree pan within a car in film history.

One major challenge facing Spielberg was bringing together the acting styles of his leads, Goldie Hawn and William Atherton. The stage-trained Atherton got better with each successive take, but Hawn did her best work on the first two. She did, however, get a second wind if the scene went to 12 takes or more. Spielberg found it best to start with her close-ups. Then he would film Atherton's close-ups until Hawn started to rebound, at which point he could get two shots when they were both at their best.

Most of the smaller roles in the film were cast locally, many with non-actors. Not only did that save on transportation and housing expenses, but Spielberg was able to get memorable, authentic performances from the locals.

Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin imported the best stunt drivers he could find from Hollywood to make sure the film's car crashes could be filmed safely. The most difficult was the night collision in which a police car sideswipes the stolen police car, leading to a chain reaction as another car hits the sideswiping car and several other cars rear-end each other. Since there were no road lights at the intersection where they filmed, the art director built a tractor rental station on one side of the road and strung 200 50-watt light bulbs over it. That and the lights at a gas station nearby gave cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond all the light he needed to capture the sequence. Spielberg then shot a master shot of the cars approaching each other, but with no collisions, as he couldn't afford any additional cars. Then they got the stunt with four cameras running simultaneously. Loftin drove the car that sideswipes the stolen police car and managed to hit it just right. If he hadn't, they would have had to buy another car for shots of the stolen vehicle.

Loftin also was the principal driver for the crash of the news van, which sends six reporters flying. The main stunt in that was performed by Ted Grossman, who managed to land head first in a two-foot-deep mud puddle.

It took an hour and a half to get each set-up for the highway scenes. First the Highway Patrol had to stop or reroute all traffic within two miles of the location site. After each shot, the cars in the film had to travel back to the starting point while the Highway Patrol let the waiting and, by then, angry drivers, through.

The Texas landscape was so flat that Spielberg had to place his camera above the road and use a long lens to get more than seven or eight cars within the frame.

To shoot the sequence in the used car lot economically, Spielberg had a six-foot scale model of the lot built by the art department so he could plan out the shots in advance.

Spielberg hired John Williams to score the film because he admired his scores for Mark Rydell's The Reivers (1969) and The Cowboys (1972). Originally, he wanted Williams to score The Sugarland Express symphonically, in the style of American composer Aaron Copland. Williams convinced him the film needed something sparser, working mainly with solo harmonica and a few strings.

Universal executives were thrilled with the rough cut until they previewed the film in San Jose, CA, on a double bill with Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973). Audiences were with the film through the first act, particularly eating up Hawn's more comic scenes. When the sharpshooters turned up in the second half, and it became clear this was a more serious film, the mood changed. Some audience members left in tears. Others were angry.

The bad preview scared Universal out of its original release plans for the film. They had originally slated it for a late fall release in 1973 but then decided not to compete with other big films like their own The Sting. Instead, they pushed The Sugarland Express back to February 1974. They also abandoned plans to platform the film, which meant starting with just a few theatres in key cities and letting the audience build slowly. Not having faith in the picture, however, they switched to a wider opening, a sign at the time that they were just trying to burn it off quickly. Despite strong reviews, the film fared poorly because it didn't have the chance to build word-of-mouth with more discerning audiences. It turned a small profit, but did not do the kind of business they had expected for a film starring a top box-office star like Hawn.

Universal Pictures sold the film with the taglines "A girl with a great following" and "The true story of a girl who took on all of Texas...and almost won."

By Frank Miller

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teaser The Sugarland Express (1974)

Steven Spielberg was only 26 when filming commenced on his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1974). With several years of episode TV and the much-lauded suspense telefilm Duel (1971) on his resume, the young director had successfully pitched Universal on a chase comedy that offered up plenty of arresting visuals and oddball bits of Americana.

Spielberg's screenplay, which received an extensive reworking by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, drew its inspiration from a 1969 incident where a Texas ex-con took a highway patrolman hostage in order to ensure one last free moment with his children. The pain of his parents' divorce while he was in his teens was still all too fresh in the director's mind, and The Sugarland Express would merely be the first of many projects where he would explore the theme of the fragmented family.

When the Universal brass demanded a bankable female star to anchor the project, Spielberg found no takers until his sit-down with Goldie Hawn. The actress, who had been rejecting scripts for a year in search of something that would demonstrate a range beyond her familiarly ditzy screen persona, agreed to a substantial pay cut in order to come on board. "I always thought she was a dramatic actress, for she took her comedy very seriously," the director recounted for Joseph McBride's Steven Spielberg: A Biography. "[Y]ou could tell she was thousands of kilowatts smarter than the people of Laugh-In had ever allowed her to demonstrate."

The story opens on Lou Jean Poplin (Hawn), a part-time beautician and occasional check-kiter, as she debarks at a low-security state penitentiary for a conjugal visit with her amiable if somewhat vacant husband Clovis (William Atherton). She informs him that the state child welfare board has placed their two-year-old son with a foster family in light of her own criminal record, and lets him know in no uncertain terms that they'll be retrieving the baby together.

With the benefit of smuggled-in civvies, Clovis walks out the front gate, and circumstances bring the Poplins into the grasp of a straight-arrow young trooper named Slide (Michael Sacks). The fugitives get the drop on the novice lawman, and commandeer his patrol car for a cross-state run to their child's foster home in Sugarland, TX. Slide's paternally patient commanding officer (Ben Johnson) is loathe to escalate the tension, and opts to maintain a constant tail in lieu of confrontation.

However, the situation winds up piquing the posse mentality of nearly every peace officer within radio range, and the Poplins presently find themselves heading a caravan of dozens of speeding police cruisers stretching past the horizon. A media circus springs up just as quickly, as sympathetic Texans start lining highways and main streets, treating the criminal couple and their hostage like passing royalty.

Producer Richard Zanuck, who made a show of faith in assuming the project (and whose two-year-old son appeared as the Poplins' toddler), recalled for biographer Joseph McBride how his young director demonstrated a veteran's poise on set. "He was in command. I could sense it, because I had been around long enough with a lot of great directors-the Robert Wises, the William Wylers, the John Hustons-and I knew almost immediately that he had knowledge and command and ability, and an innate, intimate sense of the visual mechanics of how you put all these pieces together so that the final result is very striking...[H]e knew the capacity of all the lenses and equipment. He knew how to move the camera, when to move it, when not to move it, how to have it move in different ways, how to move people around-he just knew it."

While the critics by and large heaped praise on The Sugarland Express, the film ultimately did little more than break even at the box office. Multiple theories have been advanced as to why general audiences failed to patronize it, from discomfort with the darker tone of the script's third act to reluctance to accept Hawn in such a relatively unsympathetic role. Spielberg's disappointment at the movies' receipts was marked, but film devotees presciently recognized that this was a young filmmaker blessed with a strong grasp of his craft, and from whom much could be expected in the future.

Producer: David Brown, Richard Zanuck
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, based on a story by Steven Spielberg
Art Direction: Joseph Alves, Jr.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editing: Edward M. Abroms, Verna Fields
Music: John Williams
Cast: Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean Poplin), Ben Johnson (Capt. Tanner), Michael Sacks (Officer Slide), William Atherton (Clovis Poplin),Gregory Walcott (Patrolman Ernie Mashburn), Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby), Steve Kanaly (Patrolman Jessup).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jay Steinberg

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teaser The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express turned a small profit. Made for an estimated $3 million, it grossed $12.8 million worldwide.

"Steven Spielberg could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer -- perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies." -- Pauline Kael, The New Yorker.

"The movie has a casual craziness that seems especially native. From the drum majorettes who greet the fugitives to the press corps interviewing the gurgling baby, the narrative is studded with national lunacies, including the wife's passion for gold trading stamps....Steven Spielberg, the twenty-six-year-old director, has built up Texas as a major character in his movie. As the herd of cars races and heaves and crashes through the landscape, the state's personality surfaces like a sperm whale. Mr. Spielberg has also made marvelous use of many Texans, some of whom haven't acted before. And he has choreographed his cars in a way that almost makes me want to learn to drive." -- Nora Sayre, The New York Times.

"If the movie finally doesn't succeed, that's because Spielberg has paid too much attention to all those police cars (and all the crashes they get into), and not enough to the personalities of his characters. We get to know these three people just enough to want to know them better. We're burdened instead with countless telephoto shots of squad cars. But the movie has its moments, and when the fugitives parade down Main Street and are presented with gifts by their newly made fans, we admit: Yes, that's the way celebrity works in America -- no matter what you're known for." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


The film won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and Steven Spielberg was nominated for the Palme d'Or.

The Writers Guild nominated the Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins screenplay for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen

By Frank Miller

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