Signalman First Class Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate First Class Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are awaiting orders in Norfolk, Virginia when they are assigned a shore patrol detail escorting a young sailor, Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), to Portsmouth Naval Prison near Kittery, Maine. Meadows has drawn a stiff eight-year sentence for the petty crime of trying to steal $40 from a collection box of his Commanding Officer's wife's favorite charity. Despite their initial resentment of the detail, the two Navy "lifers" begin to like Meadows as they escort him on a train ride through the wintry northeastern states; particularly as they know what the Marine guards are like at Portsmouth and the grim reality facing their young prisoner. As the pair begin to feel sorry for Meadows and the youthful experiences he will lose being incarcerated, they decide to show him a good time before delivering him to the authorities.
With several days to spare before they are due in Portsmouth, the trio stop off at the major cities along their route to provide bon-voyage adventures for Meadows. In Washington, DC, their first endeavor ends in failure when they are denied drinks at a bar, as Meadows is too young. Instead Buddusky gets a few six-packs so they all can get drunk in a hotel room. When Meadows passes out on the room's only real bed, the other two let him stay there and take the uncomfortable roll-away beds for themselves. In Camden they seek out Meadows' mother, only to find her away for the day and the house a pigsty, cluttered with empty whiskey bottles. They take him ice skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Buddusky tells Mulhall, "the kid is 18, he will be out of prison at 26;" they take Meadows to a brothel in Boston, so that he can lose his virginity. In between, they brawl with Marines in a public restroom, dine on "the world's finest" Italian sausage sandwiches, chant with Nichiren Shōshū Buddhists, and open intimate windows for each other in swaying train coaches. Meadows pronounces his several days with Badass and Mule to be the best of his whole life.
When they finally arrive in frozen Portsmouth, Meadows has a final request – a picnic. The senior sailors buy some hot dogs and attempt a frigid barbecue in the crunching snow. With time running out, the docile Meadows gets up and slowly walks out across the park, as if he's stretching his legs. As Meadows shows Buddusky, he has learned the semaphore flag signals: Buddusky reads "BRAVO YANKEE BRAVO YANKEE End of Message" (By by as in "Bye bye"). Meadows suddenly bolts in a last-ditch effort to run away, forcing Buddusky to chase after him. On catching the young sailor, Buddusky pistol-whips him fiercely with his sidearm, an M1911 .45 automatic.
Buddusky and Mulhall brusquely take Meadows to the naval prison, where he is quickly taken away and marched off to be processed without a word. Buddusky had worried about brutality awaiting Meadows at the hands of the Marine guards, but the young duty officer at the prison (a first lieutenant wearing an Annapolis ring), berates Buddusky and Mulhall for beating Meadows (as his facial wounds from the pistol-whipping are visible). He says that such conduct may be all right for the Navy but would not be tolerated by the Marines. The duty officer asks if Meadows had tried to escape, which they deny in order to avoid getting him into more trouble. The finally notices that their orders were never officially signed by the master-at-arms in Norfolk, and says that they effectively have not left that station. Mulhall and Buddusky ask to speak to the XO (Executive Officer), and the young Marine officer relents.
With their duty completed, the pair stride away, complaining about the duty officer's incompetence. After the rebuke, he forgot to keep his copy of the paperwork. They hope their orders will come through when they get back to Norfolk.
Producer Gerry Ayres had bought the rights to Darryl Ponicsan's novel in 1969. After returning from the set of Drive, He Said, Robert Towne began adapting the novel. The screenwriter tailored the script for close friends Jack Nicholson and Rupert Crosse. In adapting the novel, Towne removed Buddusky's "closet intellectualism and his beautiful wife". The screenwriter also changed the ending so that Buddusky lives instead of dying as he does in the book. Ayres convinced Columbia Pictures to produce the film based on his consultant's credit on Bonnie & Clyde but had difficulty getting it made because of the studio's concern about the bad language in Townes's script. Peter Guber recalls, "The first seven minutes, there were 342 'fucks'". The head of Columbia asked Towne to reduce the number of curse words to which the writer responded, "This is the way people talk when they're powerless to act; they bitch". Towne refused to tone down the language and the project remained in limbo until Nicholson, by then a bankable star, got involved.
Ayres sent the script to Robert Altman and then Hal Ashby. Ayres remembers, "I thought that this was a picture that required a skewed perspective, and that's what Hal had". Ashby was coming off the disappointing commercial and critical failure of Harold and Maude and was in pre-production on Three Cornered Circle at MGM when Jack Nicholson told him about The Last Detail, his upcoming film at Columbia. The director had been sent the script in the fall of 1971, with a reader's report calling it "lengthy and unimaginative", but he personally found it very appealing.
He wanted to do it but it conflicted with his schedule for Three Cornered Circle. Ashby pulled out of his deal with MGM, and Nicholson suggested that they team up on Last Detail. Columbia did not like Ashby because he had a reputation of distrusting authority and made little effort to communicate with executives. The $2.3 million budget was low enough for him to get approved.
Nicholson was set to play Buddusky; additional casting focused mainly on the roles of Mule and Meadows. Bud Cort met with Ashby and begged to play Meadows, but the director felt that he was not right for the role. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster gave Ashby a final selection of actors, and the two that stood out were Randy Quaid and John Travolta. As originally written, the character of Meadows was a "helpless little guy", but Ashby wanted to cast Quaid, who was 6'4". He had offbeat and vulnerable qualities that Ashby wanted. Towne remembers thinking, "There's a real poignancy to this huge guy's helplessness that's great. I thought it was a fantastic choice, and I'd never thought of it." Rupert Crosse was cast as Mule.
The project stalled for 18 months while Nicholson made The King of Marvin Gardens. Guber told Ayres that he could get Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown, and David Cassidy and a new writer, and he would approve production immediately. Ayres rejected this proposal, and the studio agreed to wait because they were afraid that the producer would take the film to another studio. Ashby and Ayres read navy publications and interviewed current and ex-servicemen who helped them correct minor errors in the script. The director wanted to shoot on location at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia and the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire but was unable to get permission from the United States Navy. However, the Canadian Navy was willing to cooperate and in mid-August 1972, Ashby and his casting director Stalmaster traveled to Toronto, Ontario to look at a naval base and meet with actors. The base suited their needs and Ashby met Carol Kane, whom he would cast in a small role.
Ashby was busted for possession of marijuana while scouting locations in Canada. This almost changed the studio's mind about backing the project, but the director's drug bust was not widely reported and Nicholson remained fiercely loyal to him, which was a deciding factor. Just as the film was about to go into production, Crosse was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ashby postponed principal photography for a week to allow Crosse to deal with the news and decide if he still wanted to do the film. The actor decided not to do the film, and Ashby and Stalmaster scrambled to find a replacement. They cast Otis Young.
Ashby decided to shoot the film chronologically in order to help the inexperienced Quaid and recently cast Young ease into their characters. With the exception of Toronto doubling as Norfolk, the production shot on location, making the same journey as the three main characters. Early on, Quaid was very nervous and wanted to make a good impression. Ashby kept a close eye on the actor but allowed him to develop into the role. Haskell Wexler was supposed to shoot The Last Detail, but he could not get a union card for an East Coast production. Ashby asked Nestor Almendros and Gordon Willis but they were both unavailable.
Ashby promoted Michael Chapman, his camera operator on The Landlord, to director of photography. They worked together to create a specific look for the film that involved using natural light to create a realistic, documentary-style. Ashby let Nicholson look through the camera's viewfinder as a shot was being set up so he knew the parameters of a given scene and how much freedom he had within the frame. The actor said, "Hal is the first director to let me go, to let me find my own level".
The day after principal photography was completed, Ashby had his editor send what he had cut together so far. The director was shocked at the results and fired the editor. He was afraid that he would have to edit the film himself. Ayres recommended bringing in Robert C. Jones, one of the fastest editors in the business, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Jones put the film back into rushes and six weeks later had a first cut ready that ran four hours. Ashby was very impressed with his abilities and trusted him completely. Jones cut the film with Ashby at the filmmaker's home. The process took an unusually long time, as the director agonized over all the footage he had shot. Ashby would ignore phone calls from Columbia, and eventually executives higher and higher up the corporate ladder tried to contact him. Ashby was in London, England meeting with Peter Sellers about doing Being There when he received a phone call from Jones, who told him that Columbia was fed up with the time it was taking for the film to be assembled. The head of the studio's editing department called Jones to say that a representative was coming to take the film. Jones refused to give up the film, and Ashby called the studio and managed to calm down the officials. Towne occasionally visited Ashby's house to check in and did not like the pacing of the film. According to Towne, Ashby "left his dramatizing to the editing room, and the effect was a thinning out of the script". During the editing process, Columbia hated the jump cuts Ashby employed. The studio was also concerned about the number of expletives. It needed a commercial hit as they were in major financial trouble. By August 1973, the final cut of The Last Detail was completed and submitted to the MPAA, which gave it an R rating.
Columbia was still not happy with the film and asked for 26 lines to be cut that had the word "fuck" in them. The theatrical release of The Last Detail was delayed for six months while Columbia fought over the profanity issue. The film contained 65 uses of "fuck" overall and at the time of its release, broke the record for most uses of the word in a motion picture. Ashby convinced Columbia to let him preview the film to see how the public would react. It was shown in San Francisco, and the screening was a huge success.
Ayres persuaded Columbia to submit The Last Detail to the Cannes Film Festival. After Nicholson won Best Actor there, it shamed the studio into releasing the film. The studio decided to give the film a limited release to qualify for Oscar consideration with a wide release planned for the spring of 1974. By the time of its wide release, any pre-Oscar hype that was generated was now gone.
When the film was released for a week in Los Angeles, it received very positive reviews. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "It's by far the best thing he's ever done", referring to Nicholson's performance. Variety magazine also praised Nicholson, writing that he was "outstanding at the head of a superb cast". Andrew Sarris praised Ashby's "sensitive, precise direction". Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "there is an unpretentious realism in Towne's script, and director Ashby handles his camera with a simplicity reminiscent of the way American directors treated lower-depths material in the '30s".
It was shown as part of the Cannes Classics section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Paul Tatara largely credits Towne's "profane, heartbreaking script" for the film's "small details, colorful language, and utterly believable character development, which cumulatively pack a real emotional wallop."
The film earned $5 million in rentals at the North American box office.
The Last Detail was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and Nicholson was awarded Best Actor. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards – Jack Nicholson for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Randy Quaid for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Robert Towne for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium with none of them winning. In addition, The Last Detail was nominated for two Golden Globes Awards – Nicholson for Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama and Quaid for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. Nicholson did win a BAFTA award for his role in the film. Nicholson won the Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. However, he was disappointed that he failed to win an Oscar for his performance. "I like the idea of winning at Cannes with The Last Detail, but not getting our own Academy Award hurt real bad. I did it in that movie, that was my best role".
In 2006, filmmaker Richard Linklater expressed an interest in adapting Last Flag Flying, a sequel to The Last Detail, into a film. In the novel, Buddusky runs a bar and is reunited with Larry Meadows after his son is killed in the Iraq War. Linklater's adaptation is set for a 2017 release and will star Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell.