Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature was a 110-minute car chase

Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature was a 110-minute car chase

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In anticipation of Captain Phillips, we recommend movies about hostage situations.

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Steven Spielberg had made a movie before The Sugarland Express—1971’s Duel, about a mysterious truck stalking a driver on a highway—but it was for television, and that was never where he wanted to stay. “I’ve always resented the television medium,” Spielberg said in a 1974 interview, “even though it was through TV that I found an inroad to theatrical films.” That inroad led to The Sugarland Express, another highway film, this one about two convicts—Goldie Hawn and William Atherton—on the run in Texas. 

The film is based on the story of Robert and Ila Faye Dent, who kidnapped a Texas state trooper in 1969, setting off an hours-long chase that drew hundreds of law-enforcement offers and onlookers. The Dents had been on their way to see their children a couple hundred miles away when they fled a traffic stop, which led to a confrontation with a state trooper and, later, the kidnapping. 

In the film, Hawn and Atherton go by the names Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin. Facing the possibility of losing their baby permanently to a foster family, Hawn convinces Atherton to escape from the pre-release facility that’s holding him at the start of the film. They hitch a ride with the parents of a fellow inmate, but when a trooper pulls them over, Hawn and Atherton take off. Eventually they end up kidnapping the officer and going on a two-day journey across southern Texas to get their son and escape to Mexico, trailed by an army of law enforcement—led by Ben Johnson—and hundreds of onlookers and well wishers. 

Along the way, the two develop a kinship with their kidnapping victim, played by Michael Sacks. While their relationship is surprisingly polite from the get-go, they become something closer to friends by the end, as Sacks’ empathy for the couple transforms him from adversary to ally. It’s not a case of Stockholm Syndrome; Sacks remains on the side of the law throughout, but he knows the perpetrators aren’t bad people and tries to help them make better decisions. Johnson’s captain is also surprisingly empathetic, as he repeatedly accommodates the kidnappers’ wishes, even as it becomes clear the situation will have no easy conclusion. 

Although Hawn was only a few years removed from her name-making role on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, she had won an Oscar in 1969 for her performance in the comedy Cactus Flower. More movie offers came quickly, but The Sugarland Express was her first dramatic role. Shaky Texas accent aside, she shows a flair for drama that must have been startling when the film hit theaters. Oddly billed fourth for what is a pivotal role, Atherton makes Sacks’ empathy easy to understand with his portrayal of Clovis as a conflicted, sweet man who can’t say no to his wife. 

The Sugarland Express had a $2.5 million budget, but looks more expensive thanks to some canny choices by Spielberg, who uses lens tricks and paints halves of cars different colors to make it look like there are more vehicles on the road. (“There’s very little to directing automobiles,” he said of the film. “It’s harder trying to direct Texas itself.”) The film bears the marks of a rookie filmmaker, like inconsistent lighting and extraneous storylines, but it also showed that Spielberg could handle a complicated production. And he’d need all the experience he could get for his next movie, which he described as “a horror story about the great white shark.”

Availability: The Sugarland Express is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase through the major digital services.

Filed Under: Film

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