I’ve read reviews about this film and also read articles about the incident upon which it is based. As most people know this was Steven Spielberg’s feature film debut, and it flopped at the box office. It does not stick to the facts of what happened to Ila Fae Dent (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Bobby Dent (William Atherton) in early May 1969. First of all, the characters’ names are changed; and their journey across Texas was significantly shorter than what is depicted in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Also the real-life incident was fraught with greater uncertainty and danger than what we see on screen.
Spielberg fudged the facts to increase the movie’s entertainment value. He had a comedy actress in Goldie Hawn, so he and Universal turned the situation into a light-hearted anti-establishment road movie. To some extent, it does have rather humorous moments; but the film could have been much more suspenseful if they’d stuck with the real story. Another thing that brings it down is Spielberg wants the officer (Michael Sacks) they’ve kidnapped to become their buddy on the lam. The officer even defends them at the end, after they’ve been brought to justice, which is incredibly unrealistic.
In the movie the couple takes the officer hostage because they want to prevent their child from going to a foster home. In real life there were two children from Ila’s previous marriage, and they were staying with their grandma. So she was not about to lose them or be prevented from seeing them. Also, in real life, the couple kidnapped the officer by luring him to an abandoned cabin so they could get a ride, though they had no idea of where they intended to go. Bobby Dent did not break out of prison, as we see dramatized in the film; he’d already been released after serving time. And of course, the real Ila Fae did not look anything like Goldie Hawn.
Watching the film makes one wonder if the situation would be handled the same way today. The captain (Ben Johnson) allows them to keep driving, while dozens of cop cars follow at a safe distance. They’re allowed to stop for gas more than once, get snacks and use the restroom– things that Spielberg makes fun of on screen. After the real-life incident was over, the captain told the media he just wanted to make sure they didn’t hurt anyone so that is why he did not blockade them.
The chase only lasted five hours, though Spielberg stretches it out to two days. A sequence where the couple spends the night in a used car lot is intended to provide romantic moments but strains credibility. At the end of the chase, Bobby Dent was ambushed by an FBI agent. Ila Mae was quickly taken into custody, and the officer they kidnapped was unharmed. The last part of the film does present the fatal shooting, but it’s staged with creative license and dragged out for about five minutes. In real life it all came to a very abrupt ending. After her husband has been shot, Goldie Hawn has a scene where she gets to kick and scream in the back of the squad car before she’s led off to prison. Suddenly it’s no longer amusing. The fun and games are over.
THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS airs occasionally on TCM.