The Sugarland Express (1974)
I started watching The Sugarland Express (1974) looking for the glimmers of Steven Spielberg‘s directing style, being his directorial debut. Not long ago seen his contemporary George Lucas‘s first film American Graffiti (1973) making his mark on the film world. Part of the first group of directors who had come out of film-school, armed with over half a century of knowledge to hand to refer to and inspire in their own work. I’ve not seen many of Spielberg’s early films, probably starting more so with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) where we can see that his visual and storytelling style has been cemented and growing.
With one eye on all of this I couldn’t help but be reminded on the recent story in the news of Ashya King’s family who was discharged by his parents from Southampton Hospital late last month, wanting on the best treatment for their son who was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Reflected in this road caper as a couple of criminals will do anything to be reunited with their son in foster care now.
A mother Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) with a criminal record has lost her son to foster parents after a string of crimes and time behind bars, goes to extreme length to smuggle out her husband Clovis (William Atherton) who is a month away from being released. The need to be with her son is too strong to wait, time is of the essence for a couple who as we learn will do almost anything in the state of Texas to get back their son.
These events based on fact take up what seems to be the whole states police force to track and follow this couple on the edge after hijacking eager new traffic cop Slide (Michael Sacks) who knows the law back to front who looses the upper hand early on. Leading to him being in the passenger seat for the remainder of the film. As the states police force are literally behind them on the open road as they travel the state with hope is complete disregard for the law. Creating a whole host of mayhem where guns are fired like mad, whilst police Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) tries to keep things under control, communicating with the couple driven to be with their son. Most of the emotion comes from the wild Lou Jean who is the mastermind of all the antics.
Its pure madness in the heartland of America as a couple bring the state to a standstill, stir up emotions of hope that encourages the public to get behind these law breakers, no law can surely keep a family a-part for long. The law seems to drop away losing all meaning the regular people who flock to see the celebrities of the moment creating hysteria in their wake. Moments of greatness, removing them from normality are taking place. A hallmark of Spielberg’s work, full of wonder for the common man. The visual cues of light, wonder and children are all there starting to take route in the lives of everyday people.
To make a comparison to American Graffiti can only be found in the youthfulness of the feel of the films as young people find freedom in vehicles over the period of a short time. There’s more of sense of occasion here as life is brought to a stand still, there is not the life changing moment as we leave childhood to adulthood. It’s the survival of the family at any cost, a cost that draws out the audiences emotion amongst all the car-crashes and people who they meet along the way. We can also see a nod from classic cinema with Ben Johnson in a major role, Spielberg is already pulling rabbits out of the hat even if we don’t realise it, taking a risk of working with a first time film director, who had practiced during the 1960’s with a number of television programmes. His theatrical film debut shows that he is able to create a stir of moments, emotion that entertain us without too much of the wonder that he is now known for. There’s no polish here, it’s just the roads, gunfire and madness. All that was about to change.
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