MOVIE DADDY: The Sugarland Express
Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both the critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films from the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we're taking a look at Spielberg's first theatrically released feature film, The Sugarland Express.
After the widely agreed upon success of 1971's Duel, it appeared movies about cars were going to be something Steven Spielberg was going to have to shake. But not right away. After jumping ship from the development of the Burt Reynolds led flick, White Lightning, Spielberg started working on an adaptation of the events that took place in 1969, wherein a couple kidnapped a police officer and forced him to take them cross-country to visit the children of the female captor. The events sparked a popular (albeit short-lived) following throughout the media, branded as a new American folktale in the making. While the story was prime for a feature retelling, Spielberg chose to take advantage of the multiple angles of perception involved with the events, creating a mish-mash of other popular road movies of the time, such as Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. With his new found power as the youngest director to be signed to a major studio deal, Spielberg wasted no time utilizing every trick he was still writing down in his book.
The film was The Sugarland Express, released in 1974, and it follows fairly accurately to the real life events that inspired it (with a few dramatic flourishes here and there). Probably the biggest alteration in events would be the entire opening act: consisting of Goldie Hawn's Lou Jean, breaking out William Atheron's Clovis, from jail. The real life “Clovis” had been released one month before the actual kidnapping that sparks the rest of the story. The couple get in over their heads fairly quickly, taking a state trooper and his patrol car, hostage on a 150+ mile ride to Sugarland to reclaim their now adopted child.
From there, things pretty much play out as you would expect, with the best parts of the flick really shining through when Spielberg is forced to create character development and story exposition, all the while, (for the most part) confined to the front and backseat of a car. Luckily, Duel gave him all of the techniques he might need to stage such a show, but Duel was missing one very important thing that is the entirety of Sugarland's success as a story: characters talking to each other. It should be noted that Panavision's Panaflex camera was brand new to the market, and it was a revolution in filmmaking due to its low noise operation, meaning all of the dialogue captured in a cramped car of three people, plus a huge camera and an operator or two, could all be used in the final edit, with looping only coming into play for purely editorial means. This, in tandem with some of Spielly's signature long take stunners, lends an unaffordable level of realism to the events, another staple of most of the director's works. This would become the norm on how all feature films would be made from then on.
But before treading any deeper into Spielberg's choice of techniques or themes, let's address the elephant in the room: “The movie Steven Spielberg made before Jaws with Goldie Hawn? But is it any good, Michael!?” you scream! To which I confidently reply: yes, it's actually a phenomenally entertaining piece of 70’s counterculture cinema, and don't call me Michael. Spielberg is ALWAYS nothing if not entertaining, and that's the thing that really jettisons most of his projects into becoming cultural milestones. His movies aren't just extremely well-made - presenting a clear communication of empathy both completely and expertly - they're also just a lot of fun to just watch. In her review of The Sugarland Express upon its release, the great Pauline Kael pointed out a few of the derivative aspects of the debut, but confirmed that, “It has so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients.” In the same review, this time reflecting on Spielberg himself, Kael wrote: “He could be that rarity among directors – a born entertainer – perhaps the new generations' 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. If there is such a thing as a movie sense - and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cabdrivers who have it and some movie critics who don't) – Spielberg really has it.” Truly the GOAT (both of 'em).
For all of its huge production, Sugarland is an intimidating display of Spielberg's ability as a director with ambitious flair. There is a creative confidence present that, in hindsight, is representative of his future success. That creativity extends, even in this debut, to another one of Spielberg's strongest tools: his choice in collaborators. This marks his first work with legendary composer, John Williams, who would go on to score most of the director’s future films, but it's also his first partnership with cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who was having a hell of a good time in the early 70’s, lending his eye to such features as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Deliverance. Zsigmond's eye utilizes the rolling scenery of the film as an ever-shifting landscape of place and time, making some of the shots of cars venturing towards a horizon look as good as any final frame in present day film.
After all is said and done in regards to the technique and talent on display, what really makes The Sugarland Express so interesting is the conversation it presents with its three main viewpoints: our “protagonists” are criminals in a car, rationalizing their actions to themselves, and (unsuccessfully) to the police. The police are bound by responsibility to rescue their captured ally, sometimes at whatever cost. And the third: the reaction of both the media and the country interpreting these events, sensationalizing our (respectfully) dumb and unlucky characters into modern folk heroes. While the media's coverage and exaggeration of the events we are witnessing is nothing new, (and unfortunately very topical today more than ever) it is the dilemma of principle between our on-the-run fugitives, and the police captain charged with bringing them in, that is by far the most absorbing. Over the span of the story, we see the character of Captain Harlin Tanner come to understand and empathize with Lou Jean and Clovis, while still feeling worried for the state trooper in their custody. He is also well weighed down by his obligation to rescue his trooper successfully, and just what that might entail to ensure its successful outcome. There is a conflict on the surface of classes, for sure, but it is the underlying moral conflict that really brings this story into full scope. You realize you don't know who you want to win before the credits roll; you just know that you hope everyone can get through this alive, and that sadly, that is not likely to happen, even with the best efforts and good intentions of our main characters.
The Sugarland Express is an insane achievement for a directorial debut, even if I really don't consider it Spielberg's true debut. (Duel was quickly extended to feature length and released theatrically, and it also kicks ass, so that's my hand). But the technicalities of such a feat are trivial when it comes to the artistry that’s on display. Spielberg has movies in his veins. He exhales cinematic magic just as casually and effortlessly as we do carbon dioxide. Lucky for us, that's rarely enough for him, as he continued to push himself in an effort to push the very medium of film into a dozen more new frontiers. Now that he's solidified that he is capable of truly great things, all he needs is the opportunity to work on something really special that he can really dig his teeth into.
On the next Movie Daddy, we look at a little feature called Jaws.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.