Sugarland Express, The (1974): Spielberg Directs Goldie Hawn in Dramatic Role

Anarchy as lack of control is manifest in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, based on an actual 1969 incident, when the escaped convict Robert Samuel Dent and his wife Ila Faye drove across Texas to reclaim their child from his adoptive parents.

The account of the 300-mile chase commanded the attention of the entire state, with television playing a major role in the formation of public opinion.

In the film, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), an impulsive and desperate woman (who had also served a sentence), visits her husband Clovis (William Atherton) at a Texas pre-release prison farm where he is waiting out the final months of a one-year term for petty larceny. Strong-willed, she threatens to leave him unless he escapes and helps her reclaim their infant son, about to be given out for adoption; the State Child Welfare Board had determined they are unfit as parents.

They get a ride with an elderly couple but the slow pace of the couple’s old rickety Buick attracts the attention of a Highway Patrol officer. Soon official alarms are out and roadblocks set up. Most of the narrative, describing the plan to stop the fugitive couple, is set on the road, with impressive shots of traffic jams on highways and intersections. At one point, the pursuing caravan is swelled to 200 assorted cars, with thousands of people waiting on the streets to show their sympathy for the Lou Jean’s rebellious defiance.

Sugarland Express stresses the crucial role of the news media in covering this event and in making instant celebrities out of hoodlums. The press is held responsible for making the Poplins story arouse curiosity and receive sympathy. The media create and exploit the public’s fascination with criminals, an issue that had already explored in Bonnie and Clyde. But the police force is also guilty. In Louisiana, two opportunistic cops believe that this is their chance to break in the new patrol car, have some fun, and achieve celebrity status for themselves.

Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson, in a role similar to his Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show) stands out as a conscientious police chief struggling to avoid bloodshed at all costs. With eighteen years of service, he boasts no killing to his name. He is a man of principle, with inner ethic code, as well as a man of action. The chase draws all kinds of weird glory-hunters, hoping to promote their own visibility. For example, a celebrity-hungry owner of a chicken stand offers the couple free food if they give themselves up at his place.

Other supporters carry stickers that say: “Register Communists, not guns.” The couple is showered with good wishes and presents (baby clothes and toys) in every town they pass through. However, these thrill-seekers present an obstacle to the police’s law enforcement. There is a horrifying shot of a terrified kid, knocked backwards by his rifle’s power. The chase brings out unbridled exhilaration and the worst behavior of the mob, susceptible for violence and destruction. Another shot shows a teddy bear run over, as if signifying the end of innocence for children, comparing them with the hunters and their guns.

Technology figures prominently in the film, with every act becoming more depersonalized. Most communications take place within cars or via two-way radios. Captain Tanner uses Lou’s father to persuade his daughter to give up her foolish scheme, but instead, he gets angry and scolds her. The films shows, as the critic Pauline Kael pointed out, the effects of the mass media on people, the way they look (pink curlers), their eccentric hobbies (the woman collects gold stamps at service stations), but without putting them down.

Nonetheless, neither film nor characters display any humanity. The protagonists are anti-heroic and small-minded, unable to see beyond their immediate interests. They set off events they don’t know how to pursue and which later take control of them. Sugarland Express is imbued with a sense of fatalism–people acting according to biological instincts, lacking awareness and control over what they are doing.

Of the two protagonists, it’s the woman who masterminds the scheme, though without much brains. In the end, she is also responsible for her husband’s death by a sniper. The movie is ambiguous in portraying Lou Jean’s maternal needs. At times, you get the impression that the couple is out to get their son out of revenge; at other times, the feeling is of a long-suffering mother. The couple is portrayed as desperate, but not really dangerous. Their defiance with prison records and their anti-establishment attitudes are in tune with the alienation of many Americans from their government in l973 and l974, during the Watergate crisis.

The movie is strong in suggesting the origins of mob behavior, a crowd going out of control. Starting as a small incident, the crisis grows out of any proportion. The police force, in charge of controlling the situation, is devoid
of effective power. Everyone in the film is helpless and ineffectual; the crisis seems to follows its own logic. By implication, American society is viewed as a system without any regulative norms or coercive power; a society on the loose, with no moral center or binding collective conscience.

Unlike the protagonists of Bonnie and Clyde, who are the stuff of modern myths, Lou Jean and Clovis can ignite the masses’ imagination only for seconds, until the next media celebrities assume their place. Bonnie and Clyde had at least some control over their lives; Lou Jean and Clovis have none. But like Bonnie and Clyde, Sugarland Express is a disguised Western: the fugitives stand in for the solitary Westerners (what has remained of them), and the procession of police cars is a modern, technological version of the posse in classic Westerns.