The Sugarland Express

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The Sugarland Express
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Screenplay by
Story by
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Hal Barwood
  • Matthew Robbins
Produced by
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited by
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • March 30, 1974 (1974-03-30) (New York)[1]
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million
Box office$12 million[2]

The Sugarland Express is a 1974 American crime drama film directed by Steven Spielberg in his theatrical debut, following the TV film Duel (1971).[3] The film follows a woman (Goldie Hawn) and her husband (William Atherton) as they take a police officer (Michael Sacks) hostage and flee across Texas while they try to get to their child before he is placed in foster care. The event partially took place and the film was partially shot in Sugar Land, Texas.[4] Other scenes were filmed in San Antonio, Live Oak, Floresville, Pleasanton, Converse and Del Rio, Texas.[5]

The Sugarland Express marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams, who has scored all but five of Spielberg's films since; 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.[6]


Lou Jean Poplin visits her incarcerated husband, Clovis Michael Poplin, to tell him that their son will soon be placed in the care of foster parents. Even though he is four months away from being released from prison, she convinces him to escape to assist her in retrieving their child. They hitch a ride from the prison with a couple, but when Texas Department of Public Safety Patrolman Maxwell Slide stops the car, they take the car and run.

When the car crashes, the two felons overpower and kidnap Slide, holding him hostage at the head of a slow-moving and growing caravan, initially of police cars but eventually including news vans, private citizens' vehicles, and helicopters. 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. During the lengthy pursuit, Slide and the pair bond and develop 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. A pair of Texas Rangers shoot and fatally wound Clovis, and after another car chase, the Texas Department of Public Safety arrests Lou Jean. Patrolman Slide is found unharmed.

An epilogue preceding the closing credits explains that Lou Jean subsequently spent fifteen months of a five-year prison term in a women's correctional facility. Upon getting out, she obtained the right to live with her son, convincing authorities that she was able to do so.


Historical accuracy[edit]

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.[7] 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.[7]

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 in the film, Bobby died instantly (about an hour later in a Bryan hospital) when he was shot at Ila Fae's parents' house[8] near Wheelock, Texas[9] where they had gone to visit Ila Fae's two children (born from a previous marriage).[7] Ila Fae was sentenced to five years in prison, serving only five months. She died in 1989.[10]


After working as a television director, Steven Spielberg made his first stand alone feature film-length production with the TV movie Duel, released in November 1971. After that he persuaded co-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to let him make his big-screen directorial debut with The Sugarland Express, which was based on a true story. Shortly after it was released in March 1974, Spielberg began his next project for Zanuck and Brown in 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.

This was the first movie to use the Panavision Panaflex camera.


The Sugarland Express holds an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.2 out of 10 from 52 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."[11]

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "If the movie finally doesn’t succeed, that’s because Spielberg has paid too much attention to all those police cars (and all the crashes they get into), and not enough to the personalities of his characters. We get to know these three people just enough to want to know them better."[12] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded the same two-and-a-half star grade and wrote that "whereas Bonnie and Clyde prompted our sympathy for its heroes because of their winning style, The Sugarland Express asks us to care for Clovis and Lou Jean because they are thick-skulled and because, presumably, every mother has an inherent right to raise her own baby. It doesn't work."[13] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called Hawn's performance "generally delightful" but found that "something happens to the picture" toward the end as "the story opts for an abrupt series of production number shootouts, as though this was the real purpose in making the film, and all that preceded was introductory filler and vamp. Too bad, for two-thirds of the film is artful, the rest strident."[14] Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that it "seems peculiarly contrived ... it may have happened this way in real life, but in the film the fugitives are so unequivocally presented as poor, harmless innocents that the veritable army of police cars absurdly queuing up to be in at the kill looks very much as though both they and the film were taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."[15]

Other reviews, however, were much more positive. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it "a dazzling, funny, exciting and finally poignant film," and called it "astonishing" what Spielberg, Barwood and Robbins "have managed to accomplish within a simple trek plot. Starting out as a comedy that gradually darkens, 'The Sugarland Express,' which is based on an actual incident, becomes an increasingly disenchanted portrait of contemporary America."[16] Nora Sayre of The New York Times wrote, "Spielberg, the 26-year old director, has built up Texas as a major character in his movie. As the herd of cars races and heaves and crashes through the landscape, the state's personality surfaces like a sperm whale. Mr. Spielberg has also made marvelous use of many Texans, some of whom haven't acted before."[17] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "an exciting new American film—a funny, tense and ultimately touching chase melodrama ... It's an odyssey you may never forget, and you might as well memorize the names of the young filmmakers responsible for it, the 26-year old director, Steven Spielberg, and the 30-year old screenwriters (and no doubt prospective directors), Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, because they've made one of the most stunning debuts in Hollywood history."[18] Pauline Kael wrote that "In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this is one of the most phenomenal début films in the history of movies."[19] David Thomson sees the film as a natural followup to Duel: "Sugarland Express is another epic of the road—raucous, feverish, and based on an actual incident. What makes its quest and journey so touching is the treatment of the central characters. They are not self-aware, enlightened or stereotyped, and the movie never patronizes them. Goldie Hawn's wife is an untidy, vibrant woman, a robust departure from the social gentility that usually encloses Hollywood women. She is genuinely vulgar, but is never mocked because of it."[20]

The film grossed $6.5 million in the United States and Canada and $5.5 million overseas for a worldwide gross of $12 million, making it the lowest-grossing film of Spielberg's career.[2]


The film won the award for Best Screenplay at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Sugarland Express - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  2. ^ a b Klady, Leonard (June 28, 1996). "Box Office Behemoth". Daily Variety. p. S28.
  3. ^ "The "Sugarland Express" Gang". TexasMonthly September 1, 2001. Retrieved 2013-03-14.
  4. ^ Rohan, Linda Sue (2 June 2020). "Caught on camera — spot our hometowns in the movies". Retrieved 2 June 2020.
  5. ^ "Movie Locations of the Great Southwest : The Sugarland Express". Taos Unlimited Movie Locations. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  6. ^ "The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration: John Williams Conducts His Classic Scores For the Films of Steven Spielberg". Amazon. 1991. Retrieved November 6, 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Haile, Bartee (2012-05-04). "The real story behind 'The Sugarland Express'". Conroe Courier. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  8. ^ Sweany, Brian D. (September 2001). "The 'Sugarland Express' Gang". Texas Monthly. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  9. ^ Gonzales, J.R. (2011-02-22). "Obituary: James Kenneth Crone, 69". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2017-12-18. The chase ended in Wheelock, outside Bryan, at a farm home where Ila Faye Dent's parents and two children resided.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "The Sugarland Express (1974)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 29, 2022.
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 26, 1974). "The Sugarland Express". Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (April 9, 1974). "'Sugarland Express': Sad but true". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 5.
  14. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (March 20, 1974). "Film Reviews: The Sugarland Express". Variety. 18.
  15. ^ Milne, Tom (July 1974). "The Sugarland Express". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 41 (486): 158.
  16. ^ Thomas, Kevin (April 5, 1974). "Mother Love Leads a Curious Caravan". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  17. ^ Sayre, Nora (March 30, 1974). "Film: Goldie Hawn on 'The Sugarland Express'". The New York Times. 20.
  18. ^ Arnold, Gary (April 5, 1974) "It's a Real Movie and The One That Matters". The Washington Post C1.
  19. ^ Kael, Pauline (March 18, 1974). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 130.
  20. ^ Thomson, David (2004). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. p. 847.
  21. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Sugarland Express". Retrieved 2009-04-26.

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