Though the film was billed as being based on an original story, some reviewers found parallels between this film and the 1962 Hungarian film Two Half Times in Hell, which was based on a real-life association football game in 1942 between German soldiers and Ukrainian prisoners of war during World War II, known as the Death Match.
Paul "Wrecking" Crewe is a former star pro football quarterback, who walks out on his wealthy girlfriend Melissa in Palm Beach, Florida. He takes her Maserati-engined Citroën SM without permission and leads police on a car chase, choreographed by Hal Needham. Crewe is arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in Citrus State Prison.
The convicts disrespect Crewe because he was dismissed from the National Football League for point shaving. A sadistic warden, Rudolph Hazen, is a football fanatic who manages a semi-pro team made up of prison guards and wants Crewe to help coach the team and clinch a championship. Responding to pressure from the guards' leader and coach, Captain Wilhelm Knauer, Crewe initially refuses, but eventually relents and agrees to form a prisoner team to play the guards' team in an exhibition "tune-up" game. Crewe forms a team that includes Samson, a former professional weightlifter, and Connie Shokner, a serial killer and martial arts expert.
With the help of the clever Caretaker, former professional player Nate Scarboro (changed to Scarborough in the 2005 remake) and the first black inmate willing to play, "Granny" Granville, plus long-term prisoner Pop — and with an assist from the warden's amorous secretary, Miss Toot — Crewe molds a team nicknamed the "Mean Machine". He agrees to play quarterback himself. After witnessing "Granny" being harassed by some of the prison guards without breaking, the black inmates decide to volunteer their services and join the team. Unger, one of the prison trustees, persistently asks Crewe if he can replace Caretaker as manager of the team, which Crewe refuses to do. In retaliation, Unger attempts to kill Crewe by fashioning a home-made bomb from a light bulb filled with a combustible fluid, designed to detonate inside Crewe's cell when he turns on the light. However, Caretaker is killed instead, when he enters Crewe's cell to retrieve some papers and Unger closes the cell door, locking him in and preventing rescue.
After Caretaker's memorial, Crewe's teammates are given a stern lecture from Hazen about the consequences of any attempted escape after the game. Afterward, Crewe re-energizes the team with a surprise - presenting them with professional uniforms (stolen from the guards by Caretaker before he was killed). They charge onto the field, to the shock of the guards and Hazen, in their new uniforms.
The "Mean Machine" starts out surprisingly well, and at halftime the game is close, with the guards leading, 15-13. Hazen threatens Crewe as an accessory to Caretaker's murder unless Crewe loses the game to the guards by at least 21 points. Crewe reluctantly agrees, but obtains a promise from Hazen that if he cooperates, the other prisoners will be unharmed. Hazen double-crosses him, telling Captain Knauer to order his players to "inflict as much physical punishment on the prisoners as humanly possible" as soon as they are ahead by 21 points. Crewe makes deliberate mistakes, putting the "Mean Machine" down by more than three touchdowns, 35-13, then takes himself out of the game. The Teammates feel betrayed by Crewe's actions. The guards then take out their anger on the prisoners, causing several injuries.
A depressed Crewe goes back into the game. At first, the prisoners provide him with no protection or co-operation, but he convinces them of his change of heart. The "Mean Machine" gets back into the game, trailing 35-30. Knowing that Crewe needs help, Nate, despite his bad knee, scores one of the touchdowns, but is immediately cut down at the knees by guard Bogdanski, crippling him. As he is wheeled off the field, Nate tells Crewe to "screw Hazen" and win the game. They turn the tables on the guards in terms of the violence, including a clothesline from Samson that apparently breaks a guard's neck.
Crewe scores the winning touchdown with no time left and the "Mean Machine" wins, 36-35. As the prisoners celebrate and Crewe walks across the field, appearing to escape, Hazen furiously orders Knauer to shoot him with a rifle, but he refuses before Crewe picks up the football and hands it to Hazen.
A number of the actors had previously played professional football. Henry played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams. Kapp played quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Nitschke was a middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, four years after release, and Atkins played for the Los Angeles Rams, the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. Also appearing as prisoners are Wheelwright, who played with the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, and Ogden, who played with the St. Louis Cardinals, the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears. Sixkiller was a collegiate star as a quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies from 1970-1972, and briefly played pro in the defunct World Football League. Reynolds himself had played college football for Florida State University before injuries curtailed his career.
The Longest Yard opened in New York on August 21, 1974. This was followed by a release in Los Angeles on September 25, 1974 followed by a general release in October 1974.
The film was popular and earned $22 million in North American theatrical rentals. It had admissions in France of 200,738.
The film received generally positive reviews, currently holding an 81% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The film has been remade three times:Mean Machine (2001), starring Vinnie Jones, taking place in England and changing the sport from American Football to Association Football.
The Longest Yard (2005), starring Adam Sandler as Crewe and featuring Burt Reynolds in a supporting role (that of retired player Nate Scarborough).
Captain Masr, which translates to Egypt's Captain (2005), starring Mohamed Imam, taking place in Egypt and again changing the sport to association football.
The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy in 1975. Reynolds was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Albert was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture and James Hampton was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor. The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing.