The Sugarland Express(1974)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond

The Sugarland Express is a 1974 American crime drama film co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg in his theatrical feature film directorial debut.It stars Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, and Michael Sacks.



In May 1969, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her husband Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) to tell him that their son will soon be placed in the care of foster parents. Even though he is four months away from release from the Beauford H. Jester Prison Farm in Texas, she convinces him to escape to assist her in retrieving her child. They hitch a ride from the prison with an elderly couple, but when Texas Department of Public Safety Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) stops the car, they take the car and run.

When the car crashes, the two felons overpower and kidnap Slide, holding him hostage in a slow-moving caravan, eventually including helicopters and news vans. The Poplins and their captive travel through Beaumont, Dayton, Houston, Cleveland, Conroe and finally Wheelock, Texas.


By holding Slide hostage, the pair are able to continually gas up their car, as well as get food via the drive-through. Eventually, Slide and the pair bond and have mutual respect for one another.

The Poplins bring Slide to the home of the foster parents, where they encounter numerous officers, including the DPS Captain who has been pursuing them, Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). A pair of Texas Rangers shoot and kill Clovis and the Texas Department of Public Safety arrests Lou Jean. Patrolman Slide is found unharmed. Lou Jean spends fifteen months of a five-year prison term in a women’s correctional facility. Upon getting out, she obtains the right to live with her son, convincing authorities that she is able to do so.


Spielberg’s Forgotten First Film

6 June 2008 | by joshbaileynch (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

After the success of Duel (which was really a TV movie) Sugarland Express (Spielberg’s first feature film) flopped at the box office, though it received a reasonably warm critical response. In fact this is a great little movie for all kinds of reasons.

If you’re interested in Spielberg as a director this is fascinating as it begins to lay out most of the themes that have driven his work ever since – family (especially divided and dysfunctional families), childhood, parenthood, outsiders, America and Americana etc. It’s also a really interesting piece in terms of his developing style. This is the first Hollywood film in which panaflex cameras were used allowing Spielberg to produce fantastically elaborate and fluid shots even in the confines of a car (see the superb 360 pan fixed on Ben Johnson’s car when he first talks to the Poplins)- a kind of cinematography that has become a hall mark of Spielberg’s, as have the rising crane shots and extended tracking shots that pepper the film. Spielberg skies and “God Light” (his term for shafts of light in mist/at night) also feature heavily.


It’s also a really interesting if somewhat unrecognised influence on films like Thelma and Louise which seems to lift its basic structure and characters right out of this film. The way Ben Johnson’s Captain Tanner equates to Harvey Keitel’s police officer in Ridley Scott’s film seems particularly close.

Fantastic performances all round too. Johnson, Horne and Atherton (a much under-used actor who has been largely wasted since, playing roles like the self serving journalist in the Die Hard films)particularly shine.

It’s also very funny, sad and engaging from beginning to end. Can’t recommend this one enough – especially if you’re a Spielberg fan.


Spielberg’s sleeper- a tragic-comedy that delivers what it proposes

Author: MisterWhiplash from United States
19 August 2005

Before Jaws propelled Steven Spielberg to the moon, he was a television director, often on episodes of Columbo and Night Gallery. Then came Duel, his taut, experimental feat of man vs. man in machines thriller that made him notable, if not bankable, in the Hollywood eye. His first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express, is to me still one of his ten best (maybe not top five, but up there). Along with his screenwriters (whom would all go to win at Cannes), Spielberg brings a true story with a sense of the tragic realism, but also the sense of adventure and fun that goes into Spielberg’s most entertaining films. There’s usually a sense of excitement, but one can sense this is not the kind of story that will end up as the main characters think.


Goldie Hawn (as pretty as she is dramatic and chippy) and William Atheron (later impressionable in Ghostbusters, very much so here), are a husband and wife- the husband is in jail at the start of the film, and Hawn breaks him out with little trouble. They have a custody battle, literally, going on with their son, who is away at a home. They have to go through Texas- aka the ‘Sugarland Express’- but it won’t be easy. Soon there’s a pursuit across the state, as the couple becomes rather famous in their simple pursuit of getting the one they love. Hawn and Atherton play off each other well, and Spielberg even at his young age as a director here gets very good performances out of them, especially out of Atherton who has a kind of urgent, tense, but focused way about him throughout. Hawn here isn’t totally in the kind of mode like in her vehicle comedies- she’s playing the worried mother, as determined as her husband, but her performance still contains a kind of naiveté that’s crucial to the character.


And in full widescreen glory Spielberg flexes his technical chops to a full capacity. He doesn’t make the film as a thriller like with Duel, but it still drives suspense on in its road movie way. There are a couple of shots that are done for the first time (see trivia) to great effect, and there is a scene in a small town I still remember very well due to the amount of people that are in it, and how Spielberg directs this wonderfully. In some ways this is like one of those Lifetime movies crossed with Smokey and the Bandit only played more for realism; there’s something very interesting that we don’t get to see much with the son, he’s always in a world of his own inside the house, as the situation builds on the outside.

This all builds up to an ending that some have said doesn’t work, or (like with some of Spielberg’s other films, War of the Worlds for example) is too abrupt.


I found that it worked just as well as with the opening scenes. It’s realistic, at least for the period, and its important to remember this is based on a true story, and in these establishing and closing scenes the audience gets the real meat of the story (Catch Me if You Can did this too, though in a different way), and then in the middle some of the more dramatized parts come in. It wasn’t a smash success on its first release, but it made enough of an impression with its win at Cannes and its writers guild nomination (ironically it was nominated for Best Comedy) to get Spielberg his next gig, which ended up being the real test of his career. As a nifty tale of overly concerned parents on-the-run, its really very impressive.


A Quality Work Of Passionate Filmmaking.

Author: CinemaClown
2 December 2014

Steven Spielberg’s theatrical feature film debut is a smartly crafted, expertly composed & skilfully executed adventure drama that clearly exhibits the legendary director’s penchant for turning an on-screen moment into a larger-than-life event without ever going over the top and is also significant for marking the commencement of one of cinema’s greatest collaborations.

Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express tells the story of a young woman who successfully breaks her husband out of prison to help her assist retrieving her child, about to be placed in the care of foster parents. Things soon take a turn for the unexpected when they’re left with no choice but to take a patrolman hostage & are pursued by the police throughout their journey.


Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film wonderfully introduces many of his trademarks & themes that would continue to recur in his later works and is a solid work that has enough style & substance to keep the viewers engaged for the most part. Camera-work is dynamic, makes excellent angle choices & remains consistent throughout while editing steadily paces its narrative.

Coming to the acting department, the cast comprises of Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton & Michael Sacks amongst which it’s Hawn who chips in with the most impressive performance. Marking his first collaboration with Spielberg, John William provides a score that beautifully reflects the film’s tone with tracks that are adventurous, light-hearted & at the same moment, slightly poignant.


On an overall scale, The Sugarland Express is one of Spielberg’s highly underrated flicks & although far from a masterpiece, it’s still a quality work of passionate filmmaking that’s admirable for a number of things. Full of crowd-pleasing elements, presenting the then-young filmmaker refining his craft & an indication of greater things to come, The Sugarland Express is a must for Spielberg’s fans as well as critics.

Fun movie!

Author: Boba_Fett1138 from Groningen, The Netherlands
9 November 2004

Man, I forgot how much fun this movie actually was. In my mind it was a heavy drama but on my recent viewing (finally it’s on DVD!) I rediscovered this movie and found out how fun it was. It kind of has the same fun feeling the other ‘based on a true story’ Spielberg movies: “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal” have.


The movie is made with lot’s of profession and very little money. The small budget does not stop Spielberg of making a good movie. This movie was also the first Vilmos Zsigmond/Steven Spielberg collaboration. They later worked together on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. But more importantly; it also was the first collaboration of John Williams and Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful collaborations in movie history, as later turned out.

the movie features a young Goldie Hawn and William Atherton who I really like as an actor. Atherton is probably best known for his role in “Die Hard 1 & 2”, “Ghostbusters” and the more recent movie “The Last Samurai” in which he has a small part early in the movie.


It might be a bit too slow and probably boring for some people but I still recommend this movie. It has both action and substance. In a way also a must see because it was Spielberg his first real big hit and can be regarded as his breakthrough.


A Well Done Drama Based Upon a Real Life Incident

Author: daddyofduke from United States
6 January 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I saw this film, based on a true story, for the first time in a theater while I was in college. I remember the film well for two reasons. One was because I was on a date with Cindy, whom I liked a lot. The second reason was because I felt sorry for the film’s hapless husband, Clovis Poplin, quite ably brought to life by William Atherton.


Thirty seven years later I still see the film from time to time. I can’t say the same thing about Cindy. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what happened to Cindy. Hopefully only good things because she was, and hopefully still is, a very special person.

The movie showed up on cable the other night so I watched it yet again. I still enjoy the movie, but for different reasons than I did back when I was learning how to think. Atherton is effective as the husband who loves his wife so much that he is willing to do anything for her, including getting shot. And Goldie Hawn is equally successful in portraying the wife who can no longer distinguish fantasy from fact, or need from want.


Atherton’s character, a good old kind of guy who isn’t the shiniest bulb in the box is inspired by the life of Robert Dent. His wife, Lou Jean Poplin, inspired by the very real Ila Fae Holiday, is trashy in a cute sort of way and has an overwhelming desire to get back her baby from foster parents. Lou Jean masterminds Clovis’ escape from prison, and then commence to reclaim their baby.

During their escape, the lovebirds carjack an old, cranky couple, and later kidnap Texas trooper Maxwell Slide, believably played by Michael Sacks, and steal his patrol vehicle. The character is based on the life of Texas Department of Safety Patrolman John Kenneth Crone. Coordinating the ensuing police pursuit is the life weathered and compassionate Captain Harlin Tanner, effectively dramatized by Academy Award winner Ben Johnson of The Last Picture Show fame.


As a retired police officer, I tend to judge critically the accuracy of films regarding police procedures. I don’t know how much of the police work portrayed in this film really happened, but I hope not much. The police pursuit in this case involved at least 100 police cars, all with their lights and sirens on, many which crashed, often into each other. People lined up along the road to watch the chase as news media hovered about ground. As the happy couple drives through one particular town they are celebrated as heroes. In another town they are the target of a reckless vigilante ambush that doesn’t succeed.

Trooper Slide has 9 months on the job. His actions are not, shall we say, text book, and his conduct surely suggests that he was not ready to do police work on his own. So let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say the lapses were based on cinematic license.


This was Director Steven Spielberg’s first theatrically released film. Prior to the Sugarland Express, he had directed the made for TV movie, Duel, an effective drama involving a trucker versus a road salesman. I like action as much as the next guy. Really. But the pursuits portrayed in Sugarland Express are ludicrous. I would have preferred watching less pursuits and delving with more depth into the lives of the people involved. Cindy and I probably enjoyed watching the pursuits when we saw the film in the theater. Of course, I wasn’t such a brilliant analyst of police procedures back then, or the lover of thoughtful biographies.


According to the Texas Monthly, in real life Crone worked for a few more years for DPS, and then went on to become a director of security for the U.S. Department of Energy. He died February 10, 2011. Holiday was sentenced to five years in state prison, did 5 months, and cared for her mother and children. She died in 1992 as a dietitian at a Holiday Inn.

This is a fine movie well worth seeing. As you will see, even Spielberg’s early work was distinctive, compelling and thoroughly entertaining. They just were not police training films.



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