Harris Wagner (Huston) frames Jay Wagner (Duvall). In order to keep him silent, Jay is incarcerated in a Mexican prison.
Jay's wife Ann (Ireland) is unhappy at this turn of events and hires a Texas bush pilot in Brownsville, Texas, Nick Colton (Bronson) and his partner Hawk (Quaid), to fly into the prison and rescue her husband.
The first attempts don't work, so Colton quickly learns how to pilot a helicopter.
While Hawk and accomplice Myrna (North) feign a rape to distract the prison guards, Colton pilots a helicopter into the prison complex, Wagner boards the helicopter, and they escape. The group (Colton, Hawk, Myrna, Wagner) return to Texas in a four-passenger light aircraft.
Alerted to the escape, Harris Wagner orders his agent Cable (Mantee) to Texas to intercept the group. Cable, driving a Citroën SM with Washington, D.C. license plates, locates Ann Wagner and follows her Chevrolet Impala convertible, knowing she will lead him to Jay Wagner.
Cable uses false identification to lure Jay Wagner away from the group when they land. Cable nearly succeeds in kidnapping Wagner, but Colton becomes suspicious and pursues them. The film ends with a runway incursion as Cable and Colton fight among departing airplanes at Brownsville Airport.Charles Bronson as Nick Colton
Robert Duvall as Jay Wagner
Jill Ireland as Ann Wagner
John Huston as Harris Wagner
Randy Quaid as Hawk Hawkins
Sheree North as Myrna
Alejandro Rey as Sanchez
Emilio Fernández as J.V.
Paul Mantee as Cable
Alan Vint as Harve
Roy Jenson as Sheriff Spencer
The film was loosely based on an actual event that took place in August, 1971. In a plan hatched by San Francisco attorney Vasilios Basil "Bill" Choulos (1928–2003), a pilot, Vic Stadler, flew a Bell helicopter with its bottom painted in colors similar to that of the Mexican attorney general's into Mexico City's Santa Maria Acatitla prison and assisted a prisoner in a daring escape. That prisoner, New York businessman Joel David Kaplan, claimed to have been framed for murder and had been serving a 28-year sentence since 1962. A Venezuelan prisoner, Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, escaped along with Kaplan. Unlike in the film, there was no rape distraction, no shots were fired and there was no pursuit by Mexican law enforcement.
The prison scenes were filmed at Fort de Bellegarde, Mexico would not participate in portraying this event. Romani people (also known as gypsies) local to Southern France stood in for many of the Mexicans.
The film featured a French Aérospatiale Alouette II turbine helicopter in place of an American Bell Helicopter.
The film earned $7.5 million in North American theatrical rentals, and was distributed internationally.
Part of its box-office success was due to the then-novel strategy of "saturation booking", in which Columbia released 1300 prints simultaneously, combined with a heavy advertising campaign on the opening week. This was one of the first major studio films to use this method of release. Inspired by the success of Breakout, Universal Pictures used the same technique to promote Jaws. After Jaws became the highest-grossing movie of all time, saturation booking became the standard method of releasing major films.