(1974) dir. Steven Spielberg
As my trope of watching first feature films by notable directors from the 1970’s through the 1980’s (and arguably still today), I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), which was pretty cool. But as it was a made for television film, The Sugarland Express is actually considered his first theatrical feature film. Spielberg took a much different route than the directors who were interesting me the most, the ones that came up under the “Roger Corman school”.
In Duel, you definitely see a strong directorial vision, from the use of the camera, to the dramatic control of the narrative, the action, and the vision. The Sugarland Express shares a lot with that film in some ways and yet is also utterly, dramatically different. Both are essentially road films, taking place almost entirely on the highways. And these highways are populated by a clear image of America, both in landscapes and in its people. And at this point, Spielberg seemed to like grizzled elderly people who seem like non-professional actors, suggesting a quirky, rustic set of personas.
But in Sugarland, Spielberg also starts populating his films with the soft, kind Americans that he likes to portray, good, honest people who show character traits that make them intended for immediate and easy identification with the audience. Sugarland is based roughly on a true story about a poor young couple who lose their child to protective services because of their respective jail times for random misdemeanors. The mother, played by a young Goldie Hawn, sets them out on a journey of car-jacking and hi-jacking and kidnapping a police officer and using his squad car to head to Sugarland (Sugar Land), TX to retrieve their child. They manage to get half of Texas following them across the landscape, holding their hostage with whom they become friendly, garnering news reporters and fans who support the family.
Everybody is nice, really, except for a couple of gun fanatic vigilantes who attempt to shoot them up at one point and are the only ones chastised harshly in the film. Though the steely snipers, who are called off, reek of heartlessness, too. The head of the police, played by Ben Johnson, is a fatherly fellow who recognizes that these are just “two crazy kids” and not hardened outlaws, despite the guns and the kidnapping and all the hoopla. And via radio discussions, back and forth, there is a humanistic connection between the primary characters. They all want good things, hope to unite their family, not really hurt anyone, be kind to animals.
So it’s a little weird when at the end of the film one of them gets killed. The tone of the film is not fatalistic, like the doom is bound to happen. You certainly want them to work things out and become a family because they are not mean or psychotic or cruel, but kind and generous and largely loving. But, of course, the story does follow the events and so someone does get killed.
Though the film is mostly dramatic, it features lots of charm and humanity and comedy, making the tone far from stark and/or harrowing. It’s like this is what happens when a couple of good though not so bright folks do something really stupid but wind up being understood. I don’t know what the message this film sends in the end. They clearly did not have an exit strategy that wasn’t entirely in denial of reality. It’s odd. Maybe partially out of step with its ending.