Inner State 5: The Sugarland Express (1974)

09/06/2017  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

I’ve always viewed Steven Spielberg as poet laureate of Hollywood schmaltz. That sounds like an insult, but it’s not. Spielberg represents the best of what Hollywood and its monolithic budgets can achieve. He knows how to tell stories by cinematography and body language alone. Even with all the money he brings to projects, he knows that the key to a good story lies in the human factor: characters whose struggles remind us of our own. Before all the huge budgets, Spielberg gave us The Sugarland Express. Even this early on, his genius for characterization and identifiable dilemmas shines.

Spielberg adapted the screenplay from a real incident from 1969. Bobby and Ila Fae Dent stole a cop car, kidnapped patrolman James Kenneth Crone, and traveled from Port Arthur to Wheelock, where police gunned Bobby down and arrested Ila Fae. By this time, the kidnappers had amassed a caravan of 150 cop cars behind them, along with news crews in helicopters. Despite their eventual failure, the pair had become the talk of Texas.

In his adaptation, Spielberg changed names but kept the downbeat ending and foreshadowed it throughout. The film opens with an array of road signs. The crane shot pans down to a totaled car and an old man scavenging it. A bus stops right behind them. Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) storms out. Sunglasses hide her tears of desperation as she charges at her destiny. She fails to notice her symbolic future sitting in a heap of crumpled metal nearby.

I got shit to do; no time for foreshadowing.

Seconds later, we get a low-angle shot of Lou Jean crossing a bridge to the pre-release unit. Desperate to get her Baby Langston back, Lou Jean doesn’t even notice as she crosses her own symbolic Rubicon. Minutes later, she’s Shanghaied her husband Clovis Poplin (William Atherton) into a quest to the small Sugarland, where foster parents intend to keep their son, Baby Langston. A series of mishaps causes the pair to steal a police cruiser and hold likeable patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sachs) hostage. As their story gains the entire state’s attention, Patrolman Slide’s fatherly captain Harlin Tanner (Ben Johnson) leads the chase to get them back before they can “rescue” Baby Langston.

If Lou Jean loves Baby Langston more than anything, she loves Texas Gold Stamps more than anything else. In her obsessive acquisition of these golden tickets, they come to take on an oneiric symbolism. These literal golden tickets are figurative tickets out of poverty. They’ll buy her Things, and having Things will prove to the world that she belongs in the middle class, that she deserves motherhood.

Something very Goldie Hawn about interrupting a hostage situation for Texas Gold Stamps.

Little mishaps along the way keep the film fresh. For instance, Captain Tanner has to push the kidnappers’ car when they run out of gas. The police later have to tow in a portable bathroom when Lou Jean feels a call of nature. As strange as it may seem, many of these little obstacles actually happened. More to the point, storytelling-wise, these mini-absurdities bring a bizarre kind of communion between the kidnappers and the police. Patrolman Slide functions as our audience surrogate. Because of the protagonists’ charisma, Slide, like the audience, comes to seem like a friend to the kidnappers. Captain Tanner becomes a sort of father figure to replace Lou Jean’s verbally abusive, hateful father. Tanner had never killed anyone in his 18 years on the force, and he turns down every lethal possibility until he no longer can.

Who doesn’t want their full bladder to come with a police escort?

In road film tradition, the protagonists become folk heroes. Sympathizers shower them with gifts and adoration. Crowds and even parades start to form around the kidnappers and their police convoy. Right-wing vigilantes get arrested gunning for them. Clovis and Lou Jean become a modern-day Jesse James, beloved for sacrificing their future freedom to stick it to the man.

I’d have stayed away. The Poplins are already looking at federal time. What’s a little vehicular manslaughter on top?

Spielberg believes that the power of film lies in the power of images. He once said, “[An image is] what cinema’s always about. If you can walk out of a movie with one indelible image, that movie will live forever.” In the original context, he was talking about The Thing From Another World, but most would agree that this applies to his films as well. The Sugarland Express’s most iconic image takes place in a used car lot in the middle of the night. Clovis, on what would become the last night of his life, watches an old Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon with Lou Jean. As we see Wile E. Coyote’s futile struggles reflected in Clovis’s eyes, we realize what he realizes: this story can’t have a happy ending.

We all feel like Wile E. Coyote sometimes. Mostly me.

As always happens with Hollywood adaptations, the truth is more complicated and morally ambiguous. Ila Fae didn’t break Bobby out of jail, but Bobby premeditated the kidnapping. The two had no plan or even a destination in mind. They visited Ila Fae’s kids as a side-trip, as Bobby (correctly) figured he might never see them again.

These changes might not seem important, but they speak to the film’s core themes. The two toddlers became one to give the simple story a simple MacGuffin. The protagonists had a plan because their story is a quest and a coming-of-age ritual.

Every road movie is a quest, and quest stories have rites of passage at their kernel. Our pre-industrial ancestors used religious rituals of severance to initiate youngsters into new phases of life. We modern, indoor-pooping citizens of the world use stories instead. Joseph Campbell elaborates in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.…

“When we… consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations in the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The so-called rites of passage, which occupy such a prominent place in the life of a primitive society (ceremonies of birth, naming, puberty, marriage, burial, etc.), are distinguished by formal, and usually very severe, exercises of severance, whereby the mind is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.”

Campbell goes on to postulate that the modern eschewal of these rituals has rendered us incapable of dropping the last vestiges of the thought patterns of our childhoods.…

“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her.”

The first third of our lives comes as a long succession of milestones: birth; circumcision; potty-training; piano lessons; puberty; graduation; getting an adult job; getting married.… Having our first child marks our last major milestone for a decades-long stretch, the moment we transform from “somebody’s kid” into “somebody’s parent.” We may have more kids—or choose never to have kids—but from society’s point of view, that decision marks the last life benchmark until retirement. Between the two, we spend our lives in the decades-long life-game-loop of work, raising kids, and sleeping. We sell half our waking lifespans (or more, in a society that increasingly expects us to network and check emails on our own time) to put food on the table, and we invest the rest into grooming smaller humans to do the same.

What, you ask, could all of this have to do with an early Spielberg road drama? Lou Jean’s and Clovis’s story goes further than territorial parenting or the natural love that parents have for their children. Their son Baby Langston—the little human who grew out of a zygote they made together—symbolizes their last rite of passage, their proof to the world that they’d become true adults. For them, an allegation of unfit parenting amounts to a sentence to eternal infancy. Lou Jean proves the truth of this verdict by taking the most immature and self-destructive route possible to get Langston back.

And the route involving the best-toned obliques.

Lou Jean serves as the main character, but in typical Spielberg fashion, the dad emerges as the de facto hero. Clovis might not seem like much of a hero: a dimwitted, low-level criminal who assumed this role to avoid getting dumped. But as Christopher Vogler points out in his excellent book The Writer’s Journey, the core of heroism lies not in strength or bravery or intelligence—but sacrifice. Lou Jean loves her boy Langston, like any mother, but Clovis’s entire role consists of a sequence of sacrifices. He sacrifices his freedom in the certainty that a fugitive of marginal intellect and no plans can’t outrun justice forever. He sacrifices his plans and desires for life on the outside. He even sacrifices his life. Where Lou Jean seems manipulative, Clovis comes off as malleable but willing to do what needs doing. Lou Jean may drive the story, but Clovis makes it mean something.

Clovis always does the hard part.

Our two heroes’ tragic flaw seems to lie in their lack of understanding of themselves. Clovis and Lou Jean tell us, in every non-verbal way, that they have no readiness or competence to become parents in a nuclear family, but they refuse to see it. Their Jungian “shadow-selves” manifest in the long lists of crimes we hear the police use to describe them. They committed these crimes, but we find it hard to look at these hapless youths and see it in them. The wrongdoings all stem from their core crime of believing the end justifies the means—even if the means are felonies and the end isn’t in their best interests. The film has an implicit way of asking the same question as the excellent Gone Baby Gone: who are we to say whether an impoverished parent is an unfit parent?

The film makes brief interludes into Sugarland so we can see where baby Langston has gone to live. The Looby family obviously has more money, with a big house, but the house and its occupants seem stiff and sterile. Vern Looby ambles about like Frankenstein’s monster, and Mrs. Looby says she’ll give Langston all the love he wants even as Langston’s caterwauling makes it clear that he hates it there.

The quadrilateral rictus of desperation from a kid who just got repo’ed.

All of this brings us back to The Sugarland Express as Spielberg’s first of many statements on parenthood. Here he asks who would make better parents: older, richer parents who could satisfy any material wants, or young criminals who’d risk their lives and their freedom for their kid? Who’s more selfish, the cold but rich family who wants someone else’s kid, or the family who wants their own kid but show no ability to care for him? The answer seems easy when you don’t know anyone involved, but like Maxwell Slide, when we come to know Clovis and Lou Jean Poplin, we can’t help but hope they get what they want.

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About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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