If you haven’t seen this in a few decades like me, it’s worth re-watching. Somehow I mis-remembered it as a Smokey and the Bandit farce—which it definitely is not. Great character development throughout.
Spielberg wrote the script based on an actual event. Did the project appeal to him specifically because it centered on an individual quest that attracted a huge procession of followers, even well-wishers? Check out two scenes: one where Lou Jean asks for hair curlers etc. and the one where they drive through the center of town’s impromptu parade. This pageantry echoes back to Munchkinland and Emerald City, both of whose populations cheered Dorothy on to her adventures with the same pomp and enthusiasm. See The Terminal, Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can for other calvacades.
By the way, there is a small sign outside the parade town that reads Val Verde, Spanish for Green Valley…symbolizing Emerald City?
Early on is the favorite backlit moment when innocent Baby Langsdon opens the front door of the Sugarland house. Interior of house is dark and shadowed, outside is brilliant….alluring but full of danger. That is the classic image of how Dorothy enters OZ. Langsdon’s father will be fatally shot right out there. The scene is repeated later with grownups at the door: however, they perceive the threat and begin to collect the fragile vases. See Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, 1941.
After the massive police car pile-up, Lou Jean suddenly realizes her errand is no longer just a personal mission. All the hoop-la will not fade away once she’s accomplished what she set out to do. “Clovis, honey, don’t do no good runnin’ from a tornado,” she prophecies. There will be no safe place for them, just as getting home was not enough to prevent the twister’s power from sucking Dorothy up into its maelstrom. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can, (1941) for other instances where ‘home’ did not live up to its illusion of safety.
Steven’s love of kids and bikes is spotlighted. At one point, a bunch of mischievous boys ride through the center of a roadblock despite the cops’ protestations. At another, the vigilante complains when he finds his flashers have been commandeered to adorn the handlebars of his son’s bike. See Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Inner Space.
There is a predominant color palate in this film of red and yellow. Clovis has red hair, Lou Jean blond. Clovis wears a red and yellow plaid shirt. The interior of the Sugarland house is done in red and yellow. Red and yellow fringe decorates the Car Dealership’s lot where they spend the night. The motor home is red and yellow, inside and out. The TV/radio van that inspired all the publicity is red and yellow. Before they enter the downtown parade, there is a lingering shot of the yellow traffic signal with its red light shining. As they proceed, the interior of car is aglow with red roses juxtaposed against yellow gold stamps. Many shots of crowds show extras dressed in stand-out reds and yellows. Just before Lou Jean, Clovis and their hostage crash the final time, you see red road signs against golden turf. The entire film features gold and red sunset skies. One of the enduring images of WOO is the close-up of Dorothy’s ruby slippers with the yellow brick road as the backdrop. Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Do I even need to point out that the entire caper is to get Baby Langsdon home to his real mother where he belongs? See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, The Color Purple, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em).
NOT WOO BUT… Let me urge you to sample this early Spielberg if for nothing more than to check out the scene where Lou Jean points out Roadrunner playing at the drive-in next-door. Clovis provides his own soundtrack for her amusement. When Coyote takes his final dive, Clovis foresees his own demise. Absurdly awesome.
Viktor Navorski meets and befriends three steadfast companions in this nether world between Krakozhia and New York City just like Dorothy did in Oz. Mulroy, Enrique, and Gupta represent the qualities of Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. Enrique searches for his heart (love of Dolores). Paranoid, fearful Gupta searches for the courage to return to his family in India and face imprisonment. Mulroy is the brainy one. He keeps Gupta’s silliness in line—much as Scarecrow reigns in Lion—and he imparts savvy hints to Viktor to help him survive in this often hostile environment. See Goonies.
Of course Frank Dixon plays the Wicked Witch of the West, trapping Viktor out of sheer meanness and his own desire for power/promotion.
Viktor’s goal is to find a ‘wizard’, in this case the virtuoso jazz musician whose signature will complete his father’s collection. See A.I., Minority Report
Gupta uses a mop to delay the Krakozhia flight, affording Viktor time and opportunity to get his wish and go out into NYC. You will recall the witch’s broomstick was the tool required by Wizard as compensation for the companions’ wishes to be granted.
As Viktor promenades down the center of airport toward his exodus, he is encouraged and cheered on by his companions and bystanders, again much like Dorothy in Munchkinland and Emerald City. See Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can, Sugarland Express, Used Cars.
In the climactic parade scene, on the upper level, the camera flashes upon a distinctly yellow floor like yellow brick road. However close-ups do away with the pigment.
At the end, Frank’s security guards—like the witch’s soldiers in the castle—are only to happy to defy previous orders and former protocol. They let the captive go free.
Gupta triumphantly reassures Viktor from tarmac that everything is okay; he is returning home. See WOO, A.I., E.T., Super 8, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun, War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, Sugarland Express, Hook, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can for other characters’ touching faith in safety of home.
Viktor initially complicates matters when he refuses to confirm he is ‘afraid to go home’. Pure at heart and untouched by Frank’s evil influence, or those overthrowing his country’s government, he can never accept that home is anything but a safe place for him. Dorothy shares the same viewpoint despite events to the contrary like Miss Gulch and the tornado. See above notationfor characters with equally naïve notions about the sanctuary of home. See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, The Color Purple, Munich, Poltergeist
The film’s finale has Viktor confidently answering the cabbie’s request for a destination, “I am going home.” If he doesn’t exactly close his eyes, he certainly narrows them. See WOO Dorothy’s ‘no place like home incantation’, Empire of the Sun, A.I.
Krakozhia: some say the country is named after Krakow…maybe…but is also pseudo-anagram for Kansas and Oz.
Repeated over and over are the wind chimes tinkling, preceding every important moment of change in Celie’s life. We hear clinking or tinkling signaling magic, danger, change in so many of Spielberg’s films. The device is inspired by WOO’s Glinda. Unlike the witch who shocked and frightened children each time she appeared, Glinda politely let you know to expect her arrival with a recurring fanfare of chimes. See Always, A.I., E. T., Jaws, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist
Shug dances from the speak-easy to her father’s church with a parade of born-again sinners coming down road behind her. The scene brings to mind many instances where WOO crowds follow Dorothy and her entourage. We see such accompaniment repeated inThe Terminal, Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, Catch Me if You Can, Sugarland Express, Used Cars.
Shug is the trickster, a bad woman, a sinner, who nonetheless shows the meek Celie how to fight for what she wants. Her courage and indomitable spirit transcend her mischievous behavior and inspire and push our protagonist to achieve her goals. See Wizard of Oz, See Empire of the Sun, Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Always, Goonies, Jaws, Catch Me if You Can. Schindler’s List, Used Cars, Joe vs. the Volcano for other examples of tricksters.
The girls running and leaping through the field of flowers evokes the same pure joy and camaraderie Dorothy and pals experience upon reaching the poppies outside of Emerald City. The act of a protagonist crossing a field often precedes a major plot point in Steven’s films. See Twister, Saving Private Ryan, Lost World of Jurassic Park, Always.
Celie inherits her family’s former house when her raunchy stepfather dies. This windfall marks a turning point in her life. She finds security, autonomy, peace, and eventually joy after she returns ‘home’. The WOO promise! See Twister, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Catch me if You Can, Minority Report, Amistad, Munich, Poltergeist, The Terminal for other examples of home as the sanctuary.
Mother is finally reunited with her children, a slight variance to the definition of ‘home’. See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Sugarland Express, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em) for reunions of children with loved ones.