The Sugarland Express: Steven Spielberg’s First Theatrical Film

Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express. Courtesy of Universal.

While Duel later got edited for a theatrical release, The Sugarland Express marked the first theatrical film for Steven Spielberg.

In celebration of The Fabelmans entering wide release, I did a rewatch of the earliest Steven Spielberg films. One thing to note about this film in particular is that it marks the beginning of Spielberg’s relationship with John Williams. Williams composes such a memorable theme for the film that recurs throughout its almost two-hour runtime. The legendary composer goes basic with the score–a harmonica and small string ensemble–rather than the huge orchestra that Spielberg preferred. But hey, this is the start of a beautiful friendship. The larger orchestra would come sooner than later.

While the script stretches a bit from the real-life events, it stays true to the basic gist of what happened in real life. An ex-convict had been freed two weeks earlier and was willing to do anything to talk to his children again. Just like in the film, they would kidnap a Texas highway patrolman and a high-speed car chase would follow. It would come to an end seven hours later after Bobby Dent struck a deal with Texas Department of Public Safety Captain Jerry Miller. Suffice it to say that Miller lied like the wind in making a deal and Dent was shot to death. Aside from the film’s ending, the other key difference in the film is that Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) talks her husband, Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) into escaping in order to regain custody of their child, Langston.

One could see the idea of car chases as being fascinating to direct for the big screen. After all, Spielberg had recently come off of making Duel for Universal and ABC. Instead, what drew him to the story is the human drama, not the car chase. And so, it is the broken family that is a major focus for the film. Anyway, Universal didn’t have an interest in the film when Spielberg initially proposed it in 1969. They felt–and rightfully so at the time–that nobody would want to see it. Spielberg tried it again in a few years–this time, he had Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown on hand to revive it. Lew Wasserman put his belief in Zanuck and Brown but the studio insisted that they at least cast a name actor for the role of Lou Jean Poplin.

Spielberg isn’t afraid to try things here. He goes Altman-esque in the camera movement with zooming and panning. Towards the end of the film, Spielberg borrows from Hitchcock as the camera zooms back as the dolly moves forward. He would repeat this again in Jaws. In terms of the technical craft, one can appreciate the maturity of Spielberg as a filmmaker at the time. He was one year older than Orson Welles had been when he made his directorial debut but he directs the film like a veteran filmmaker. Sure, there are things that might not work with audiences but it was still early in his career to where could grow and evolve as a filmmaker.

Looking back on it, the studio was right that nobody wanted to see the film at the time. There’s an aspect of broken families here and in a way, one feels required to root for someone but who? Do you root for the young adults wanting to keep their family together? Or are you rooting for the police and highway patrolmen that are enforcing the law? It’s interesting, perhaps, that Spielberg reflected years later and said he would have focused on Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson) in the first half before switching focus to what’s going on inside the car. But alas, we go with the film we have, not the film we might have had years after the fact.

Perhaps one of the most interesting tidbits behind the making of The Sugarland Express is what would later turn up in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. In catching up on the real-life events, Spielberg had read about the Robertson County Sheriff’s involvement. His name? None other than E.T. Elliott. Life has a funny way of working out because Elliott would later protect E.T in the 1982 classic.

The Sugarland Express has become something of a cult classic mainly because of Steven Spielberg making it his first theatrical release.

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITERS: Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
CAST: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton

Universal released The Sugarland Express in theaters on March 31, 1974. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.