The screenplay by John Gay is based on the 1964 novel of the same title by Ken Kesey, the first of his books to be adapted for the screen. Filmed in the summer of 1970, it was released that New Year's Eve.
The economic stability of Wakonda, Oregon, is threatened when the local logging union calls a strike against a large lumber conglomerate. When independent logger Hank Stamper and his father Henry are urged to support the strikers, they refuse, and the townspeople consider them traitors. All of the Stampers live in one compound, including Henry's good-natured nephew Joe Ben.
Hank struggles to keep the small family business alive and consequently widens the rift between himself and his complacent wife Viv, who wants him to put an end to the territorial struggle but is resigned to his doing things as he sees fit. Also complicating matters is Leland Stamper, Henry's youngest son and Hank's half-brother, who returns home with a college education and experience in urban living. A heavy drinker, Lee eventually reveals he attempted suicide after his mother killed herself and has been suffering from deep depression ever since. He urges the neglected Viv to leave.
Despite the fact that he is uncomfortable living with a family he barely knows, Lee joins forces with them when they are forced to battle both the locals, who have burned their equipment, and the elements, which threaten their efforts to transport their logs downriver. After aiding their adversaries when their lives are in peril, the Stampers have two calamities at once, a falling tree that severs Henry's arm, and a trunk that crushes Joe Ben in shallow water.
Lee takes his father to the hospital, while Joe Ben laughs at his predicament until the tree trunk rolls atop him, pinning him down. Hank's desperate attempt to save Joe Ben fails. At the hospital, Henry dies after finally expressing his approval of Lee, while Hank returns home to find Viv has left him. Lining up by the riverbank, the Stampers' rivals look forward to seeing them fail to deliver their logs, but Hank and Lee team up to successfully transport them. Henry's severed arm is attached to the boat, giving the middle finger to all who watch.Paul Newman as Hank Stamper
Henry Fonda as Henry Stamper
Lee Remick as Viv Stamper
Michael Sarrazin as Leland Stamper
Richard Jaeckel as Joe Ben Stamper
Linda Lawson as Jan Stamper
Cliff Potts as Andy Stamper
Roy Jenson as Howie Elwood
Joe Maross as Floyd Evenwrite
Although both Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher had expressed interest in bringing Ken Kesey's novel to the screen, Richard A. Colla was signed to direct the film in May 1970. Five weeks after principal photography began, Colla left the project due to "artistic differences over photographic concept", as well as a required throat operation. At the same time, leading man Paul Newman broke his ankle, and the production shut down on July 29. As co-executive producer, Newman considered replacing Colla with George Roy Hill, who declined the offer, so when filming resumed two weeks later, Newman was directing as well as acting.
The fictional community of Wakonda, Oregon was filmed in various locations in Lincoln County, Oregon along the Oregon Coast. These included Kernville and other locations along the Siletz River, as well as Yaquina Bay, the Yaquina River, and the city of Newport, where several scenes were filmed in Mo's Shanty Fish House.
The film's theme song, "All His Children", with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and music by Henry Mancini, is performed by Charley Pride.
The film was the first program to be broadcast by HBO, airing less than two years after its initial theatrical release. When it was finally aired on commercial television in 1977, it was retitled Never Give A Inch [sic], a reference to the Stamper family philosophy.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "an extremely interesting, if impure (happily impure, I might add) example of a genre of action film that flourished in the 1930s in movies about tuna fishermen, bush pilots, high-wire repairmen and just about any physical pursuit you can think of . . . As in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, these films are, at their best, considerably less simple-minded than they sound—being expressions of lives lived almost entirely in terms of rugged, essentially individualistic professionalism . . . Mr. Newman . . . has been remarkably successful both in creating vivid, quite complicated characters and in communicating the sense of beautiful idiocy that is the strength of the two older Stampers. As he showed in Rachel, Rachel, Mr. Newman knows how to direct actors . . . [His] handling of the logging and action sequences . . . is also surprisingly effective, not because of any contemporary fanciness but because of what looks like a straight-forward confidence in the subject. My only real objection to the film, I think, is a certain impatience with the screenplay, which lumberingly sets up almost a very physical and emotional crisis that can (and, indeed) must erupt before this kind of movie can be said to have decently met its obligations."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film three out of four stars and described Newman as "a director of sympathy and a sort of lyrical restraint. He rarely pushes scenes to their obvious conclusions, he avoids melodrama, and by the end of Sometimes a Great Notion, we somehow come to know the Stamper family better than we expected to."
Richard Jaeckel was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show. Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman and Henry Mancini were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "All His Children" but lost to Isaac Hayes for "Theme from Shaft".
On December 18, 2012, Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray for the first time.