The Sugarland Express (1974) is technically Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film. He made Duel prior as a TV movie that ultimately got a cinema release in Europe, as well as the never-released TV horror Something Evil, but Sugarland was his first film to get theatrically released in his homeland.
Spielberg’s films can, in general, be divided into two categories, the mass-appeal ‘entertainment’ films (Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones etc), and the ‘serious’ films (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad etc). Though it most certainly leans toward the former more than the latter, The Sugarland Express doesn’t fit so easily into either group.
Drawing from a true story, Goldie Hawn plays Lou Jean Poplin, a young woman who fears her son will be placed in foster care, so decides to break her husband out of prison to save her son, but end up taking a Texas patrolman hostage as they are pursued across the state.
It contains a few Spielberg hallmarks, a John Williams score, family as a central theme, and it’s worth noting that he would go on to make several films centring around chases, both bleak (Minority Report) and breezy (Catch Me if you Can), but on the whole Sugarland doesn’t necessarily feel like a Spielberg film. This is probably exaggerated by it lacking any kind of sentimental conclusion. His talent is clearly there, he handles the chase scenes very well, but his inexperience (he was in his mid-twenties when he filmed it, unusually young for a film director) does show up too. Unlike most other Spielberg films, its running time is far too generous for its slight story (for which Spielberg also has a rare credit).
It features some fun sequences, such as the initial escape, but is also quite downbeat, and remains overshadowed by similarly themed lovers-on-the-run films of the period (Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde).
Worth seeking out for more than just Spielberg completest reasons, but still nowhere near the quality of a lot of his work. Although the simple yet highly effective Duel was made before, and is superior to it, The Sugarland Express tends to feel like the work of a talented filmmaker who’s still finding his feet.
‘The Lesser Seen’ is a feature in which I highlight a lower-profile film or two by a well-known director.