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Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks, William Atherton

Back in 1974, Steven Spielberg was brand new. He'd made three TV movies including the superb Duel, but this was the first chance he had to make a theatrically released feature film. It's based on a real event he read about in the newspapers, that happened in 1969 in Texas. The studio gave him the green light on the condition that he find an honest to goodness movie star to appear in his film and sure enough, he managed to land Goldie Hawn, who had only made six films at this point but landed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for one of them, 1969's Cactus Flower.

She's Lou Jean Poplin, a headstrong young mother who's incensed at the fact that the authorities are keeping her child in foster care, even though she's now three weeks free from a women's facility. Now this is hardly surprising, given that she's been locked up for a while and her husband still is, but by this point is just isn't her call any more. Now all she wants to do is get her baby Langston back and she has a plan to do it too. Her husband Clovis has been moved from the federal penitentiary to a pre-release facility and she's all set to mastermind his escape as step one of her plan.

Clovis is played by William Atherton who I've seen in a whole host of movies, from Ghostbusters to The Last Samurai via Mad City and a couple of Die Hard movies. He isn't very prolific though and he's racked up only 33 films from a small role in 1972's The New Centurions to 2008's Black Crescent Moon. He even played studio mogul Darryl F Zanuck in a TV movie called Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, a quarter of a century after this film saw him play screen father to Zanuck's grandson, who is baby Langston here. This was his first major role and unfortunately for him he's dancing to his wife's tune from moment one, mostly complaining about how much trouble he's going to be in.

And yeah, that's a lot of trouble. Beyond walking out of his low security prison a mere four months before he was going to be released anyway, circumstances lead them into stealing a car leading a chase from the law, and when they crash, kidnapping a young police officer and forcing him to drive them to Sugarland to get their boy. The longer they run the more trouble they get into, but it's a pretty unique sort of trouble, especially as the cops know precisely who they are and where they're going.

There's much to watch here, mostly of course the origins of possibly the most important film director of the modern era. He definitely knew what he was doing and he'd obviously studied the work of others: this looks and feels effective and accomplished for someone so new to the industry. Sure enough, his next film would be Jaws and he hasn't looked back yet. The fact that there are scenes here that are memorable even amongst the rest of his screen output is a major point. I really liked what must be one of the slowest and most sedate car chases in history, one that literally comes to a halt on more than one occasion.

When their vehicle runs out of gas, they get moving again by having the police chief and lead pursuer push them all the way to a gas station. They have a portaloo driven in when Lou Jean gets caught short. They even stop for food and eat in the car before getting moving again. And throughout, a whole train of cop cars is following in their wake. In fact this chase is so slow that it becomes something utterly different, something we would recognise now as a media event, something that is exacerbated when a couple of idiot local cops think they can make a difference all on their own.

This event takes over the film really, eclipsing whatever Goldie Hawn and William Atherton do, though they do their jobs well. Michael Sacks is the patrolman who ends up their unwitting kidnap victim, Maxwell Slide by name. He's a nice guy who understands the mess his kidnappers have got themselves into and does his best to bring the whole affair to a peaceful close. Ben Johnson does a very subtle job as the police chief trying his best to do the same thing, bringing the whole thing to an end without anyone getting hurt.

The problem I had with the film was that it just ran on too long. I was hooked for an hour but by then the ending was inevitable and how we got there didn't really matter too much. It wasn't anybody's fault in particular but it became harder and harder to pay attention. There was some character building going on but it didn't seem to have a lot of point. I'm not generally someone who calls for shorter movies, there's usually something else I want to see that there wasn't time for. This one could have done with a half hour cut out or more and I'll take Duel any day. That kept my interest a lot more with a lot less to do it with.

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