The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express (1974)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Goldie Hawn
Extras: Trailer

Just before doing his break-through movie hit "Jaws, " Steven Spielberg co-wrote and directed "The Sugarland Express, " a film about a young couple’s struggle and fight against authorities to get back custody of their child, which they lost while serving prison sentences. Universal Home Entertainment has now brought the movie to DVD for the first time – as a bare-bones release, though, without any extras.

Based on a true story, the film starts out as Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), who was just released from prison, is visiting her husband Clovis (William Atherton) in a low security pre-release prison where he’s spending the last four months of his sentence. She tells him that their sun was taken away and convinces him to spring jail with her to help her get back Baby Langston. As they hitch a ride away from prison a patrolman stops their car and when he approaches the car, frantically, Lou Jean tries to make a run, with the patrolcar now hot on their tail. After crashing the car, Lou Jean sees only once chance for them to get away, taking the cop hostage and so they do. What started as an ill-thought-out desperate attempt to save their baby now suddenly turns into one of Texas’ largest chases as Clovis and Lou Jean try to force their way to Sugarland, the place where 2-year old Baby Langston is now living with foster parents.

"The Sugarland Express" is a powerful film throughout with a great many facets to its characters. While at first the Poplins may appear like some slightly dim-witted losers the complexity of the personalities is wonderfully brought to life by the actors portraying them. Goldie Hawn is throwing herself into the part with veracity and William Atherton is her perfect counterpart. Step by step during the long trip to Sugarland we learn that they are not bad people in the common sense of the world, but more victims of their own circumstance, and all they care about is their baby and the possibility to lead a regular life somewhere away from all this. And even though it escapes them that their actions make that completely impossible they are convinced they are doing the right things, especially as their never harbor any ill thoughts at all. The policeman in their custody is, in reality, in more danger of getting hurt by his fellow colleagues – and some rampaging rednecks – than by the Poplins. Captain Tanner who is leading the Sugarland Express through Texas, is played by Ben Johnson, who makes sure he is putting the proper deliberation in the character. No rash decisions, never trigger-happy, and always trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem he creates a warm, realistic character who withstands the peer pressure put on him from all those who want to bring this excursion to a swift end.

The movie already shows Spielberg’s great sense of cinematography, underscored by Vilmos Zsigmond’s wonderful work of the camera. There are beautiful vistas, dramatic portraits, intense close-ups and all packaged in a film that is always warm and human. As penned by writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, the film is more about the intricate human relationships developing in this tense situation than about the physical collision of good guys versus the bad guys. At times you don’t even know who the real bad guys are as decisions are not cleanly drawn in black and white only.

Universal Home Entertainment is presenting "The Sugarland Express" in its original <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD. The presentation is free of blemishes and defects and creates a solid picture that holds a good level of detail. Colors are rich and vibrant, and bring out the best of the movie’s mostly natural-looking cinematography. Skin tones are always faithful and natural looking and there is no color bleeding evident in the presentation. Black levels are absolutely sold and give the image good visual depth, rendering shadows with good definition also. The transfer shows signs of edge-enhancement a times, which can be a bit distracting as it renders unnaturally looking halos around edges of high contrast. Universal should have been able to avoid these nasty artifacts and as such it is a bit disappointing to see them pop up on occasion. The compression has been done well enough to make sure detail is maintain well throughout the film, but again it doesn’t appear Universal really tried to go for a top tier presentation here, as some dot crawl is evident in darker image parts, washing out fine details.

The DVD contains the movie’s original stereo audio track. The track is clean and free of any defects or hiss. The frequency response is good and makes for a natural sounding presentation. The dynamic range is also good, though the film is not really challenging the format as much of the story is played out in a fairly low key manner and only the syncopated action moments give the audio presentation something to work out.

The only extra found on this DVD is the film’s trailer, presented in a shoddy-looking non-<$16x9,anamorphic> format. Not only is the trailers full of blemishes and features entirely washed-out colors, the compression is also riddled with artifacts, hardly making it an item of pride on the release.

"The Sugarland Express" is a fascinating move that is often overlooked in Steven Spielberg’s career as it is overshadowed by his gigantic successes that followed later. Nonetheless, this is also one of his finest character driven films that definitely deserves to be seen. It took Universal forever to bring it out on DVD and now that it’s here, make sure you give it a look yourself. You will see how all the elements are the, how all the pieces fall into place that ultimately make Steven Spielberg one of the most important modern directors.