Spielberg: The Sugarland Express

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Lou Jean Poplin wants what many Spielberg protagonists want — she wants her broken family made whole again. She is willing to do anything to achieve this goal, including a long list of felonies, crimes and misdemeanors. This leads her afoul of the state.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST GET? The state waffles, but eventually comes down on Lou Jean pretty damn hard.

The Sugarland Express is reminiscent of a number of other movies, most of which would not come out until years or even decades afterward. It has the baby-obsessed heroine of Raising Arizona, the populist-heist dramedy of Dog Day Afternoon, the over-the-top car chases of The Blues Brothers and the sunny hick humor of any number of70s modern outlaw pictures. It takes place against the backdrop of the same Texas as No Country For Old Men (there’s a crusty old police captain who has the exact same relationship Sheriff Bell has to Moss, and the climactic car-chase even ends smack in the middle of the Rio Grande, and one half-expects Josh Brolin to come running along, chased by a dog) and has the doomed-lovers-on-the-run aspect of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands.

Ed in Raising Arizona wants a baby from her class superiors, but Lou Jean’s beef is with the state — they have taken her child away from her for being an unfit mother. So the drama of The Sugarland Express is one of the individuals against the state and how the state responds when order is upset by an individual. Especially when the individual inspires thousands of other individuals — in other words, “the people,” the same people the state is supposed to be serving.

The structure goes something like this:

ACT I: Lou Jean busts her husband Clovis out of jail, they hitch a ride out of town, lead a state patrol car on a wild chase, kidnap a Patrolman named Slide and head to Sugarland, where Lou Jean hopes to be reunited with her baby. All this happens in a brisk 22 minutes.

ACT II: The principal antagonist, Captain Tanner, emerges and marshals the forces of the state against Lou Jean. He leads a number of patrol cars across the state on a slow-speed chase behind Lou Jean that lasts into the night. He considers assassinating Lou Jean and Clovis but then thinks better of it. A roadblock trap backfires and creates a traffic snarl that allows Lou Jean to escape into the night. This takes us to 57:00.

ACT III: Lou Jean and Clovis have a respite where they hide out in a used car lot, where they camp in a mobile home, play house and watch a Roadrunner cartoon at a nearby drive-in. In the morning, a couple of unlicensed yahoos show up with shotguns and proceed to blow the hell out of the car lot. Captain Tanner arrives with his men and allows Lou Jean to go free again, while he arrests the yahoos. This takes us to 1:17:00.

ACT IV: Lou Jean leads what is now hundreds of police cars, media vans and onlookers across the state. They are swamped by well-wishers as they pass through a small town and eventually arrive in Sugarland, where, unbeknownst to them, a trap has been set by Captain Tanner. Clovis is shot and he, Slide and Lou Jean desperately try to make it for the border. They make it halfway through the river before Clovis dies and Lou Jean is arrested.

(The end title tells us that Lou Jean finally got her baby back after serving a 15-month prison sentence — that would make her and her son just the right age to become Melinda Dillon and Carey Guffey in Close Encounters.)


A few minutes into the movie, Lou Jean, while visiting Clovis in a low-security prison, pulls him into a bathroom and begins to initiate sex. Clovis is flustered and upset, especially when it turns out Lou Jean doesn’t want sex at all — it’s all part of her escape plan. This is the first time a sex scene is played for laughs in a Spielberg movie, but it would not be the last. It would take, by my estimation, another 20 years before Spielberg would present a mature, straightforward scene of two people having sex.

And as long as we’re here, let’s look at the romance between Lou Jean and Clovis.  Lou Jean busts Clovis out of jail against his will, then forces him to kidnap Patrolman Slide, and essentially keeps kicking his ass forward until he’s dead.  It’s played well, but that’s essentially the dynamic of their relationship.  That, to me, is something other than a mature view of love.  It almost seems like Lou Jean would be better off getting her baby all by herself, since she has to boss Clovis into every transgression (much like Ed in Raising Arizona, except here Lou Jean is the protagonist).  It’s telling that Clovis’s idea of a romantic evening is curling up on the bed and watching Roadrunner cartoons — he’s still just a kid himself.

Spielberg’s use of lenses and camera movement is as fluid and skilled as it is in Duel; what impresses here is his work with actors. There is a warm naturalism to all the acting, especially among the large supporting cast, which is essentially the yokels and goofballs from the “armada” scene in Jaws stretched out over an entire movie. Spielberg presents these yahoos with great affection and humanity. There is plenty of typical Spielbergian wit and punch as scenes move with an effortless grace created through sheer visual kinetics — Character A moves from point 1 to point 2, carrying prop B which is important to plot point 3, etc. etc. The character scenes all land nicely with only occasional broadness, but Spielberg really lets loose with the car chases and shootouts. You can tell that’s where his real interest lies — or rather, you can tell that action is what he’s more comfortable shooting (this dichotomy of action-over-character is most pronounced in 1989’s Always).

Captain Tanner is an interesting antagonist, as he is essentially sympathetic with the protagonist. As a man, he wants Lou Jean to be reunited with her child, as a peace officer (or tool of the state, if you prefer) he is required to act with lethal force to maintain order. The fact that no one’s life is ever really in danger and the only real property damage caused by Lou Jean is a wreck Buick does not concern the state — she has rebelled against the state and the state must quash her rebellion. One could say that Tanner is caught between the natural law of human families and the man’s law of the state.

Lou Jean and Clovis hit the road with their kidnapped patrolman in an attempt to mend their family, and so become a kind of ad hoc family on the way. Max Slide becomes their punished child, their palling brother and their scolding father at different times in the movie, and even briefly becomes a potential point in a romantic triangle.

There’s a wonderful scene as Lou Jean and Clovis watch the Roadrunner cartoon at the drive-in. They can’t hear the sound, so Clovis begins to supply the sound effects. As he watches the cartoon, he, and we, begin to realize that Lou Jean and Clovis, like the Coyote, are caught in an endless pursuit across the desert, a pursuit that will not, and cannot, end well for the Coyote.

hit counter html code


3 Responses to “Spielberg: The Sugarland Express”
  1. curt_holman says:

    This won the Best Screenplay at Cannes in 1974? I did not know that.

    Somehow I’ve never managed to see this, but “Clovis” has always been one of my favorite names of all time.

  2. sboydtaylor says:

    …and has the doomed-lovers-on-the-run aspect of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands.

    Hah. When I watched this in film class, it was shown the same semester as both of those films (and Blade Runner as well). I never even caught on that “doomed lovers” was a theme. How clueless am I?

  3. craigjclark says:

    There was a time when I watched just about anything that came on TV that the TV book gave four stars. Sugarland Express was one of those films and I remember being surprised that Spielberg had done anything before Jaws. (This was pre-internet, so it was a few more years before I even knew that Duel existed.)

    This is one of the few “outlaw lovers embraced by the common folk” movies that I’ve ever bought into. Others have followed in its wake (the one that immediately comes to mind is Emilio Estevez’s Wisdom), but there was usually something that rang false about them for me.