The Sugarland Express
Sugar-coated pill

by Judith and John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 2, 1974, p. 3
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, one of the recent “rural-couple-on-the-run” movies, vivisects the living American dream, reveals the class conflict at the base of our society, and bares the complex of fetishes, illusions, and fears by which we live. The film is Stephen Spielberg’s first feature and it is a brilliant effort. Although only twenty-six, he has already the sort of imaginative control of his medium few directors ever attain.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is based on a real incident which took place in Texas in May, 1969. A young woman, herself recently released from prison, engineers her husband’s escape from a prison farm (he has only four months left to serve). Their child (Baby Langston) has been placed in a foster home because Lou Jean was declared an unfit mother. Lou Jean’s rather undefined plan is to get to Sugarland, where the baby is living, and retrieve the child. What is to happen then is left unclear.

The pair snare a ride with an old couple who drive so slowly that a policeman (Maxwell Slide, played by Michael Sachs) stops them. Lou Jean panics, roars away in the couple’s car, and, after a frenzied chase, smashes up in the woods. Because the policeman is new to the force and inexperienced, Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin (Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) hijack him and his car. They take off for Sugarland, and as the news gets around the trio collect a following of several hundred police cars and an adoring public. Finally, Clovis is wounded by sharp shooters, the fugitives careen across the Mexican border and come to a jarring end on a sandbar. A postscript informs us that Lou Jean, after serving a part of her sentence, got her baby back and is now “living quietly in a small town in Texas.”

Although THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is a brilliant technical achievement, the more one probes the shimmering surface, the more confused one becomes—what is the movie about? In a recent Newsweek review of the film. Spielberg gave his own view:

“I've discovered I've got this pre-occupation with ordinary people pursued by large forces. A personal movie for me is one about people with obsessions.”

And certainly this movie is one about people pursued by large forces and people with obsessions. But if this were all the film were about, we could dismiss it as one more action picture, motorized western, domestic war film, rural cops and robbers movie with a firm place in the Hollywood family tree.

But THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is, in fact, a strangely attenuated collection of tragicomic events which never fully integrate, and this lack of integration helps us see what is inside the film. What other reviewers have called “callousness” or “condescension” on the part of the director seems to be the ironic stance he has assumed to mask his deep-felt con-fusion with regard to his characters, their activities, and the structure within which police and outlaws both function. Contrary to what most critics have written, Spielberg cares much more for his characters than either Malik or Altman in BADLANDS or THIEVES LIKE US. These latter directors use their characters to talk about other things: the corruption and crumbling of U.S. society. Spielberg, on the other hand, is much too involved in the American dream to work with it dispassionately. Thus his ironic stance repeatedly breaks down as his own contradictions and confusions surface in the film.
At the heart of the film is a very accurate picture of U.S. class conflict.

The film portrays four distinct strata. The foster family, headed by a John Connally look-alike, and their lovely white house represent the upper class or bourgeois establishment. By the end of the film, this house becomes the focal point of the film and the center of power. The house and what it stands for is the Poplins’ destination—the dream that motivates them.

On the other hand, this family unit is the one thing Captain Tanner, the head of the police forces, must defend even if he has to kill someone to do it. Captain Tanner and his police form a kind of classless middle strata whose function—to defend the wealthy—defines them. Spielberg makes Tanner’s equivocal position between power and powerlessness very clear in the two scenes which introduce him. In the first one, several lawyers interrogate Tanner about police procedure. The tone of their voices and his obvious discomfort make their relative positions clear. Then word that the Poplins have hijacked officer Slide arrives, calling Tanner to duty; he marches down a corridor flanked by two uniformed officers. The camera is below eye level and martial music booms in our ears. The harassed civil servant becomes the powerful police captain taking charge of a major case.

The people who make up the small town crowds—the Poplins’ fans—represent the lower middle class and the working class. In the war between the Poplins and the police, most of these people support the Poplins and make them popular heroes. Finally, the Poplins represent the lumpen proletariat. Despite their winning ways, they are the detritus cast off by a fiercely competitive society. Neither can hold a job; both have records of arrest and convictions.

Spielberg and the scriptwriters, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, create a displaced class conflict. In our society the basic conflict is between the working class and the upper classes for control of the means of production. Most artists don't give expression to this basic conflict or cannot directly face its reality, but they cannot completely escape it. Usually they show it in a displaced struggle between “classless” groups police and criminals, cowboys and Indians, youth and age, men and women, and the ubiquitous “lone individual” and society. Thus in THE SUGAR-LAND EXPRESS, the Poplins, who have not conformed to the standards set up by the ruling classes, are punished by limitations on their free-dom and the destruction of their family unit. When the Poplins try to assert their rights as individuals, the ruling classes—through their agents, the police—suppress the Poplins. The ordinary Texans see the nature of this conflict very clearly and defend the Poplins’ right to maintain their family unit: “Hon, it’s yer baby.” These people know that the last remnant of the illusion of community in our society is the family and see its defense as an absolute right and necessity.

Because Spielberg fails to recognize or deal with the basic class conflict at the heart of his film, we have to do it for him. It also means that his total vision is blurred and inconsistent; his attitude toward his characters fluctuates between heartfelt warmth and estranged dismay. For example, a naive sexism permeates the film and Spielberg’s attitude toward Lou Jean and makes Hawn’s characterization inconsistent. Her conscious manipulation of her flaccid, velvet-eyed husband jars against her foolish plan and mindless joy riding: “We're the Poplins!” she shrieks, hanging by heels and hands between car window and a Chicken Delight drive-in restaurant. Her hysterical repudiation of the public’s gifts as she careens into Mexico also fails to convince. We warm toward Clovis because he is weak and dumb, and we accept Slide because he is inexperienced and sympathetic to his captors. Lou Jean, however, evokes a lurking fear because the director himself is afraid of her hysterics and her cheap sexuality. She emanates craziness; we cannot see her as a maligned innocent.

Another problem the director can't work out is a conception of Captain Tanner’s proper function. Tanner hasn't taken a human life in his 18 years of police work. He wants to capture the Poplins, not assassinate them. And Ben Johnson (whom everyone remembers in his soothsayer role in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) comes across as a wise man, relying on personal relationships rather than on institutional clout, and warmly human. However, the police force as such is presented as a collection of dehumanized, ravening appendages to guns and living cars. A Ben Johnson/Captain Tanner cannot exist in this context. This discrepancy, which goes almost unnoticed because of its precedent in other much less sophisticated movies, exemplifies the split running through the movie. Spielberg is attempting to present characters who are at the same time caricatures—idiosyncratic, three dimensional people who are also slapstick cardboard figures.


However confused Spielberg’s vision is with regard to these characters and their functions, his satirical insight into American mores cannot be denied. He defines the populace in terms of its obsessions: guns, cars, and family. Guns and cars are at once possessions worth so many dollars and symbols of potency, mobility, and physical strength. Once Lou Jean and Clovis acquire a lethal looking revolver and a shotgun, they gain control, however temporarily, over Spielberg’s “large forces.” Their frantic, impulsive brandishing of their weapons objectifies their lack of control over their own destinies. Several brief, but frightening scenes point up the U.S. gun fetish. When the police frisk the inhabitants of a small town through which Lou Jean, Clovis, and Slide will soon pass, they amass a huge pile of weaponry. The two former reserve police officers who go out searching for the missing fugitives carry with them lovingly polished rifles. The relief we feel when Tanner uses these rifles to destroy their car’s siren and flashing lights is evoked by the viciousness with which these men attacked their trapped quarry.

When the surrogate John Connally (played by the ex-governor’s brother) is forced to retreat to safety in the courthouse, he takes an obviously expensive hunting rifle from his collection of guns and gives it to a policeman, saying, “I know you won't let me shoot the son-of-a-bitch, but at least you can use my rifle.” The rifle becomes the instrument through which he can vicariously annihilate the usurpers of his peace. Clearly, given the chance, this quiet white-haired man would gladly shoot the Poplins. Guns, then, be-come equated with control, and the ability to kill rather than to prevent killing. They also bring to the surface the hysterical viciousness which Spielberg intimates lies just beneath our socialized exteriors.

In the strictest sense, cars are the protagonists in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. The movie centers on the faulty equation people in the United States make between mobility and freedom. Moving, parked, overturned, wrecked, and burning cars, cars being washed, repaired, riddled with bullets, fill the screen through most of the movie. The fugitives even sleep in a camper. They are followed by an excruciatingly funny convoy of hundreds of police cars which are often filmed slightly out of focus so as to make of them gray monsters with red, revolving eyes. The telephoto lens which is often used on them also makes the cars weirdly organic: they seem to have minds of their own. At the movie’s end, the pursuing cars loom up over a series of ridges which separate them from their crippled quarry. They perform a weird dance of death as they vault over low ridges in their pursuit of the fugitives. The vague horror these scenes inspire comes from our perception that the cars, as presented, have acquired identity. And we are constantly confronted with the fact that all these vehicles’ elaborate maneuvering is pointless—everyone is going nowhere. When two local policemen decide to pit their car against Slide’s car (they plan to ram him), they succeed only in creating a chaos of wrecked, flaming derelict hulks. Tanner’s mobility cannot save Clovis and Lou Jean, as he would wish, and, of course, the Poplin’s mobility leads directly to Clovis’ death and Lou Jean’s utter defeat.

Spielberg, like Richard Sarafian. of VANISHING POINT, takes on this American equation and turns it on its head. However, because he does not also examine the structure which perpetuates this myth, we are left with the impression that all endeavor is basically senseless, signifying nothing. Spielberg leaves us in a vacuum because he debunks and does not analyze. Therefore we are left with a sense of dull hopelessness. Lou Jean gets Baby Langston back and Slide stays with the force. But what difference does all that make, we ask. Spielberg gives us a chaotic, valueless world in which nothing much does make a difference. If we are not to be utterly depressed by this bleak vision of human potential, we have to probe the film’s fragile surface to see what insights it provides into our crumbling society. The fact that it does provide such insights is the value of the film.