The Sugarland Express is a 1974 American crime drama film co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg in his theatrical feature directorial debut. It stars Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, and Michael Sacks.
It is about a husband and wife trying to outrun the law and was based on a real-life incident. The event partially took place, the story is partially set, and the movie was partially filmed in Sugar Land, Texas. Other scenes for the film were filmed in San Antonio, Live Oak, Floresville, Pleasanton, Converse and Del Rio, Texas.
The Sugarland Express marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams. Williams has scored all but four of Spielberg-directed films since (Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Color Purple, Bridge of Spies, and Ready Player One being the only exceptions); this is the only score he has composed for Spielberg that has never been released as an album, although Williams re-recorded the main theme with Toots Thielemans and the Boston Pops Orchestra for 1991's The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration.
In May 1969, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her husband Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) to tell him that their son will soon be placed in the care of foster parents. Even though he is four months away from release from the prison in Texas, she convinces him to escape to assist her in retrieving her child. They hitch a ride from the prison with an elderly couple, but when Texas Department of Public Safety Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) stops the car, they take the car and run.
When the car crashes, the two felons overpower and kidnap Slide, holding him hostage in a slow-moving caravan, eventually including helicopters and news vans. The Poplins and Slide travel through Beaumont, Dayton, Houston, Cleveland, Conroe and finally Wheelock, Texas. By holding Slide hostage, the pair are able to continually gas up their car, as well as get food via the drive-through. Eventually, Slide and the pair bond and have mutual respect for one another.
The Poplins bring Slide to the home of the foster parents, where they encounter numerous officers, including the DPS Captain who has been pursuing them, Captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson). A pair of Texas Rangers shoot and kill Clovis and the Texas Department of Public Safety arrests Lou Jean. Patrolman Slide is found unharmed. Lou Jean spends fifteen months of a five-year prison term in a women's correctional facility. Upon getting out, she obtains the right to live with her son, convincing authorities that she is able to do so.
The film's Lou Jean Poplin and Clovis Michael Poplin are based on the lives of then-21-year-old Ila Fae Holiday/Dent and 22-year-old Robert "Bobby" Dent, respectively. The character of Texas Highway Patrolman Slide is based on then-27-year-old Trooper J. Kenneth Crone. The character of Captain Tanner is based on Texas Highway Patrol Captain Jerry Miller.
In real life, Ila Fae did not break Bobby out of prison – he had been released from prison in April 1969, two weeks before the slow-motion car chase began. Unlike the film, Bobby died instantly when he was shot at the foster home of Ila Fae's two children (born before she met Bobby). Ila Fae was sentenced to five years in prison, serving only five months. She died in 1992, in her mid-40s.
Steven Spielberg persuaded co-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to let him make his big-screen directorial debut with this true story. A year later, Spielberg's next project for Zanuck and Brown was 1975's blockbuster hit Jaws.
A clip from the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon Whoa, Be-Gone! is shown in silence during a scene at a drive-in theater.Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean Poplin
William Atherton as Clovis Michael Poplin
Ben Johnson as Captain Harlin Tanner
Michael Sacks as Patrolman Maxwell Slide
Gregory Walcott as Patrolman Ernie Mashburn
Steve Kanaly as Patrolman Jessup
Louise Latham as Mrs. Looby
The actual kidnapped patrolman, James Kenneth Crone, played a small role in the film as a deputy sheriff.
The Sugarland Express holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.3 out of 10 from 33 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "Its plot may ape the countercultural road movies of its era, but Steven Spielberg's feature debut displays many of the crowd-pleasing elements he'd refine in subsequent films."
Film critic Pauline Kael called the film "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of cinema." Roger Ebert was less enthusiastic, complaining that Spielberg pays too much attention to the technical aspects of the film and not enough to character development.
The film won the award for Best Screenplay at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.