The Sugarland Express

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"The Sugar Land Express" also was the nickname of the American football player Ken Hall.
The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express (movie poster).jpg
Original film poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced byRichard D. Zanuck
David Brown
Screenplay byHal Barwood
Matthew Robbins
Story bySteven Spielberg
Hal Barwood
Matthew Robbins
StarringGoldie Hawn
Ben Johnson
William Atherton
Michael Sacks
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byEdward M. Abroms
Verna Fields
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • April 5, 1974 (1974-04-05)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million
Box office$12.8 million

The Sugarland Express is a 1974 American crime drama film co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg in his theatrical feature directorial debut.[1] It stars Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, William Atherton, and Michael Sacks.

It is about a husband and wife trying to outrun the law and was based on a real-life incident, the event partially took place, the story is partially set, and the movie was partially filmed in Sugar Land, Texas.[citation needed] Other scenes for the film were filmed in San Antonio, Live Oak, Floresville, Pleasanton, Converse and Del Rio, Texas.[citation needed]

The Sugarland Express marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams. Williams has scored all but four of Spielberg-directed films since (Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Color Purple, Bridge of Spies, and Ready Player One being the only exceptions); 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.[2]


In May 1969, Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visits her husband Clovis Michael Poplin (William Atherton) to tell him that their son will soon be placed in the care of foster parents. Even though he is four months away from release from the prison in Texas, she convinces him to escape to assist her in retrieving her child, they hitch a ride from the prison with an elderly couple, but when Texas Department of Public Safety Patrolman Maxwell Slide (Michael Sacks) stops the car, they take the car and run.

When the car crashes, the two felons overpower and kidnap Slide, holding him hostage in a slow-moving caravan, eventually including helicopters and news vans, 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. Eventually, Slide and the pair bond and have 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 (Ben Johnson). A pair of Texas Rangers shoot and kill Clovis and the Texas Department of Public Safety arrests Lou Jean. Patrolman Slide is found unharmed. Lou Jean spends fifteen months of a five-year prison term in a women's correctional facility. Upon getting out, she obtains the right to live with her son, convincing authorities that she is able to do so.


The actual kidnapped patrolman, James Kenneth Crone, played a small role in the film as a deputy sheriff.

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,[3] 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.[3]

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 when he was shot at Ila Fae’s parents' house[4] near Wheelock, Texas[5] where they had gone to visit Ila Fae's two children (born from a previous marriage).[3] Ila Fae was sentenced to five years in prison, serving only five months. She died in 1992, in her mid-40s.[3]


Steven Spielberg persuaded co-producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown to let him make his big-screen directorial debut with this true story. A year later, Spielberg's next project for Zanuck and Brown was 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.


The Sugarland Express holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.3 out of 10 from 33 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."[6]

Film critic Pauline Kael called the film "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of cinema."[7] Roger Ebert was less enthusiastic, complaining that Spielberg pays too much attention to the technical aspects of the film and not enough to character development.[8]


The film won the award for Best Screenplay at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The "Sugarland Express" Gang". TexasMonthly September 1, 2001. Retrieved 2013-03-14.
  2. ^ "The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration: John Williams Conducts His Classic Scores For the Films of Steven Spielberg". Amazon. Retrieved November 6, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Haile, Bartee (2012-05-04). "The real story behind 'The Sugarland Express'". Conroe Courier. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  4. ^ Sweany, Brian D. (September 2001). "The 'Sugarland Express' Gang". Texas Monthly. Retrieved 2017-12-18.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "The Sugarland Express (1974)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 17, 2016.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Sugarland Express". Retrieved 2009-04-26.

External links[edit]