Nothing says Texas more than a harmonica solo, long barren highways and a police kidnapping incident. The Sugarland Express is all of the above and more. Widely recognised as Steven Spielberg’s feature film début, it was released in 1974 and won the award for Best Screenplay in Cannes. However audiences are guilty of dismissing it in favour of Jaws released just over a year later. To begin to understand Spielberg’s talent I have found myself pulling this little classic off the shelf once more.
The plot revolves around a married couple, Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis (William Atherton), who have both spent time in prison. Subsequent to her release Lou Jean is told she has lost custody of her baby, she turns to her husband and convinces him to break out of his minimum security prison. They are on their way to the baby’s foster home to kidnap him, when a patrol officer stops them, without any other option they take him hostage and make a run to Sugarland Texas and to their baby.
It is hard to imagine America in the 1970’s before Spielberg was a household name. Back then with only three straight to television films under his belt he set about penning the screenplay with the help of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins. The film is based on actual events; in 1969 Ila Fae Dent and her husband took Kenneth Crone highway patrol officer hostage. The ensuing police caravan grew to 100 cars long, attracting local supporters, vigilante and media. The adaptation is skilful but the moments of deviation reveal hidden truths of the American condition.
Spielberg fosters sympathy for the main characters, portrayed by a young Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, by downplaying their criminal records. 1970’s Texas was a strong hold for conservative values but this was being challenged by the more liberal ideals. The idea that the State can step in and remove a child into the welfare services was perhaps too communist to stomach. When their criminal records are revealed, 40 minutes into the film, it boils down to shop lifting and burglary. The choice not to mention this earlier in the plot is deliberate, at this moment- the point of no return, it is made perfectly clear that there will be no happy ending.
This is Spielberg’s formula: a human drama story, presented with a John William’s orchestral soundtrack and just enough reality to keep you uneasy- and perhaps this is the secret to his success. We have seen it reproduced over again in Schindler’s List and later in Amistad. So it works but the real question is why does it work? Does tragedy lend credence to a project or do you get an Oscar for attempting difficult subject matter?
The isolated, dusty roads of Texas are a perfect backdrop for the car chase. The visuals clearly reference Bonnie and Clyde. The main characters of both these films are clearly out of control and subject to the disapproval of the government, the parallels are clear. The antagonist of this film is the State, nameless, faceless and terribly corporate. The State disregards a mother’s love as insignificant and incites the crime which ends in the perpetrator’s death. The agents of the antagonist are the police, who are in turn converted to the plight of the couple. First the patrol officer Maxwell Slide, arguably this could be a case of Stockholm syndrome, who protects his captor Lou Jean from hearing her estranged father over the radio. Then Captain Tanner who attempts to talk Clovis out of the hostage situation, fails to broker peace and is put in the awful position of posting police gunmen to kill the couple.
The tragedy is for-filled in the end- Clovis reaches his baby’s house but Spielberg chooses the fatal shot to be fired when he has changed his mind; when he is retreating to the car. Clovis is officially shot off the property, the legality of such a shot is questionable but the morals of shooting a man in the back are clearly base. The audience is unequivocally on the side of the criminals, Spielberg’s message is clear – if the state tried to sympathise with families we could find a solution, but I object to his use of a real tragedy. Regardless of the fact that this is a portrayal of someone’s father being shot, Spielberg spends most of the film portraying Clovis as an obedient, subservient and at best simple-minded man. Moreover Spielberg could make his point in a better way, without relying on the imaginary value of : ‘based on actual events’.
Sugarland fails to impress, I find the message too overt and the accents too comical. The badly executed Texan drawl of both leads ruins the lines of value, which are delivered too slow and make the characters appear too stupid to understand the complexity of the problem they have created. Spielberg finds his strength in the metaphor. His next film Jaws would win him critical acclaim, not because it was realistic or based on a real shark but because it played on primal fear- a universal subject. Perhaps Sugarland was designed for a different audience, it has not travelled well and the story of Ila Fae Dent and her husband is forgotten in other countries. Either way it is not as timeless as other Spielberg’s appear. The formula was not quite ready.