Why Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express Is Essential to His Career ? - VRGyani News and Media


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Why Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express Is Essential to His Career ?

Today, it’s hard to imagine the art form of movies without Steven Spielberg. How can anyone look at an image of a T-Rex without recalling their favorite Jurassic Park quote? Beaches, sharks, and the ocean have never been the same since Jaws dropped. Ditto fedoras and whips after his Indiana Jones outing. Even less iconic features like The Adventures of Tintin have developed sizeable cult followings. But despite his widespread presence in the cinema landscape today, there was indeed a point where no movie theaters on the planet had screened a project directed by Steven Spielberg.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that this seminal artist finally delivered his first feature-length work as a director. After directing memorable episodes of famous TV shows and helming TV movies (like Duel, which scored a theatrical release in certain international territories), Spielberg graduated to directing something that was made first and foremost for the silver screen in 1974 with The Sugarland Express, which used a true story of couple Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) trying to get their child back from his foster parents.

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This pursuit gradually spins more and more out of control and quickly involves holding Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) hostage in Slide’s vehicle while an army of cop cars and adoring citizens follow behind the Poplins. In some respects, The Sugarland Express is an outlier in Spielberg’s filmography, particularly in its Southern setting (a backdrop he wouldn’t regularly return to) and its bits of dark comedy that seem more evocative of Joel and Ethan Coen. However, in several key respects, The Sugarland Express saw Spielberg emerging as a theatrical film director with some of his most notable hallmarks as a filmmaker already fully intact.

For starters, the basic premise of The Sugarland Express uses a true story to inspire the first instance of one of Spielberg’s storytelling fixtures: broken families. Inspired by his own experiences as an adolescent coping with his parent’s divorce, the works of Spielberg are often about families torn apart. Elliot in E.T. is grappling with an absent father, Minority Report focuses on an action hero whose son was kidnapped, Catch Me If You Can’s premise is set into motion when Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist is told by his parents that they’re separating. The examples go on and on.

All of those features can be traced back to The Sugarland Express, a unique manifestation of this thematic motif of Spielberg’s catalog. For example, while many Spielberg broken families feature at least one largely absent parent figure, here, both of the Poplin’s are alive and well. In another deviation from the norm, this story follows adult figures rushing to enact a plan they’re certain will result in their family uniting once again. In other Spielberg projects, the totality of divorce is apparent from the start, there are never attempts at hope, let alone actual depiction, of broken families mending again.

Still, The Sugarland Express kicks off Spielberg’s theatrical film directing career by establishing his affection for tales about families torn apart. The thoughts of Spielberg’s own experiences with suddenly dealing with a family vanishing also flicker in one’s mind in a scene depicting Lou Jean Poplin realizing that she’s never getting her kid back. As she just screams and bangs her fists in unpolished anguish, one can't help but wonder if there are any parallels between this moment and how the actual Spielberg responded to his parent’s divorce. Is the authentically raw nature of this moment entirely due to Hawn’s performance or is it also informed by Spielberg’s own experiences with grief related to familial woes?

Whatever the case, Spielberg’s affinity for tackling this topic is apparent in The Sugarland Express as is the presence of one of Spielberg’s most important creative partners. John Williams serves as the composer of The Sugarland Express, the first time he and Spielberg ever worked together. Already nominated for multiple Oscars in the early 1970s thanks to his work on movies like Valley of the Dolls and The Poseidon Adventure, William’s career would be promptly taken to the next level through his subsequent creative endeavors with Spielberg like his iconic score on Jaws.

Those expecting a rehash of Williams’ compositions for Spielberg’s blockbusters in the score for The Sugarland Express will be taken aback by the decidedly country-inspired aesthetic of the soundtrack, particularly the heavy uses of harmonicas and the plucking of banjo strings. But the very presence of Williams here means that Spielberg’s theatrical directing debut cemented one of the greatest director/composer pairings of all time. Additionally, The Sugarland Express also featured Spielberg’s first time working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Verma Fields, who would go on to reunite with the auteur on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws respectively.

It isn’t just in the focus on a fractured family or in key crew members that bridge the gap between Sugarland Express and Spielberg’s other works. This crime thriller also explores a recurring topic of the director’s features contemplating the definition of “lawfulness”. The Poplin’s are technically criminals, but they’re shown to be treated by celebrities by everyday Texan citizens while the film itself shows constant sympathy for their plight. This facet of the plot serves as a precursor to later Spielberg projects like Munich and Minority Report, which would delve deeper and darker into the topic of what gets defined as “legal” or “criminal”.

And then there’s the fact that so much of The Sugarland Express is a chase movie. So many of Spielberg’s works focus on the simple plotline of an adversary pursuing a protagonist doggedly. It was even in his 1971 TV movie Duel, so it’s no surprise that it serves as the outline for The Sugarland Express and for so many later movies ranging from Jurassic Park to Catch Me If You Can. This part of Spielberg’s catalog has become so well-known that the poster for Minority Report even came accompanied with the simple tagline “Everybody runs”. All that running dates back to 1974 with the Poplin’s evading Texas authorities while pursuing their son.

Even the filmmaking itself in The Sugarland Express shows signs of Spielberg’s most noticeable visual traits. While the onslaught of angelic light pouring in from windows that would dominate his 21st-century output lensed by Janusz Kaminski is absent here, he does make time for one of his trademark dolly zooms to depict an intense moment where a police officer aims a sniper rile at Clovis Michael Poplin. It’s an effective bit of camerawork that quietly accentuates the tension of this critical moment and it’s no wonder Spielberg would make a habit of returning to this visual trait in the years to come, most famously in Jaws, when Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the great-white shark attacking a young boy.

Looking over The Sugarland Express as a whole, one can easily see ways Spielberg would improve his craft in the years to come. But it’s also fascinating to look back on this project, nearly half a century later, and also see so many early examples of the elements that would come to define this man’s filmography. Whether it’s in the kind of families he explored, the people he worked with, or the way he filmed his movies, so many parts of The Sugarland Express serve as the origin story for one of modern cinema’s most influential visionaries.

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