The Sugarland Express (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She wants her baby!

When her baby is put into a home with foster parents Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) will have nothing of it and helps her husband Clovis (William Atherton) break out of pre-release prison in an attempt to steal the child back. The two hitch a ride with an older couple (A.L. Camp, Jessie Lee Fulton), but when the car gets pulled over by Officer Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) they panic and drive off. The officer is able to track them down when their car crashes, but when he goes to investigate the accident Clovis pulls the officer’s own gun on him and uses it to take him hostage. They speed off in his patrol car, which soon gets the entire Texas Highway Patrol after them as well as creating a media frenzy in a slow moving car chase that spans 2-days and 300 miles.

This film marks director Steven Spielberg’s full-length theatrical feature film debut and the result is highly entertaining. He takes an odd moment in history and helps infuse a playful quirkiness to the proceedings while also gently nudging the Texas stereotype. The music by John Williams and especially the harmonica solos by Toots Theilemans help cement the mood and tone. This is also the first film to use a panaflex camera and the first ever to feature a tracking shot from inside a car.

There are enough original and humorous scenes to make this well worth catching. The scene in which the police bring in a Porto potty so Lou Jean can stop and take a pee is hilarious as is the moment where their car runs out of gas and Captain Harlan Tanner (Ben Johnson) who is technically ‘chasing’ them must push their car with his to the nearest gas station. The impromptu TV interview done during the chase is great as is the first CB conversation that Tanner has with the three inside the patrol car. The best moment though is when they go through a small town where the main street is lined with onlookers and well-wishers who hand the three all sorts of gifts and encouragement through the car windows as they slowly drive through.

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Of course as with any true story the movie takes many liberties and I researched the incident by reading actual newspapers reports from that era and found this to be the jest of what actually happened. It all started in the early morning hours of May 3, 1969 when Ila Faye Dent (1947-1992) and her husband Robert where chased by the Port Arthur police for speeding. The couple managed to evade them by abandoning their vehicle and fleeing on foot into a heavily wooded area. They eventually came upon a ranch whose owner called the police to say that he had been attacked by two hitch-hikers. Patrolman Kenneth Crone, whose character is played by Michael Sacks and who also appears briefly in the film as a sheriff’s deputy, answered the call. When he arrived on the scene Robert pulled a gun on him and forced him back into his patrol car where the three then took off in the vehicle that started the massive 200 mile slow speed chase that attracted hundreds of police cars as well as onlookers and media outlets. Their destination was Wheelock, Texas where Ila Faye wanted to visit her two children from her previous marriage that where now staying with her parents. They had no intention of kidnapping them like it is portrayed in the film only to visit them for 15 minutes, which Captain Jerry Millter (portrayed by Ben Johnson) initially agreed to allow, but then later reneged.

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Ila Faye Dent portrayed by Gold Hawn in the film

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The actual car chase as it occurred on May 3, 1969.

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The changes that Spielberg and his team of two writers made to the story doesn’t help and I wish they had been more accurate with it. The biggest issue is the fact that the actual chase lasted for only about 5 hours while in the film it gets extended for 2 days, which doesn’t work because the part where they sleep overnight inside a car lot kills the momentum and makes for a draggy middle. The use of foreshadowing becomes too obvious and heavy-handed. The child-like enthusiasm by the two main characters is initially fun, but their notion that they can somehow take the police on a wild car chase and snatch back their child without having any consequences seems too unrealistically naïve even for a pair of country bumpkins as they are portrayed.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s biggest downfall though and the main reason it didn’t do well in the box office is with its downbeat ending. From a directorial stand point I liked it as Spielberg infuses all sorts of interesting elements into it including making the house in which the child supposedly is staying look very foreboding and ominous as well as a brief shot of a teddy bear being thrown out a car window and laying the road while the cars speed all around it. However, seeing Clovis get shot is jarring and takes away from the film’s otherwise lighthearted tone. In the real life incident the husband did indeed get shot and killed although it happened differently than the way it gets played out here, so I don’t really have anything against showing it, but film should’ve added in a brief moment showing Lou Jean being reunited with her child after her stint in prison, which also really happened. I realize the denouncement mentions this in text over the credits, but visually showing it would’ve made more of an impact and helped the audience leave the theater with an upbeat feeling.

End of Spoiler Alert!!

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: April 5, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

One response to “The Sugarland Express (1974)

  1. Pingback: The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) | Scopophilia

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