Based on the real-life efforts of former prison administrator Thomas O. Murton to reform Tucker and Cummins Prison Farms in Arkansas in 1967-68. The film was based on the 1969 book, "Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal" by Murton and Joe Hyams. Murton also served as a technical adviser for the film.
Making his film debut, Nicolas Cage appears as an extra. This was also the first credited film of Morgan Freeman.
The "warden impersonating a prisoner" story element, was fictionalized, and was not derived from Thomas O. Murton's experiences. It has been suggested, that this plot device was inspired by Sing Sing Prison Warden Thomas Mott Osborne, who, in 1913, under an assumed name, had had himself committed to New York's Auburn State Penitentiary.
Over 6,500 people applied to be extras in the movie, while the film itself features up to 1,000 prisoners at any one time. The movie features several retired prison guards from various jails, including the formerly active Junction City Prison, where the film was shot. When casting, the production contacted half-way houses, employment offices, and parole officers to find newly released ex-cons. Stuart Rosenberg was keen to use as many real-life ex-convicts as possible, because he maintained that they move and talk a particularly way, and that was usually very cautiously.
This film was made and released eleven years after its source book "Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal" by Thomas O. Murton and Joe Hyams was published in 1969. The film is a fictionalized version of the book, and was also based on Murton's true-life prison system experiences. It was made and released twelve to thirteen years after the events of the Arkansas prison scandal, which had taken place around 1967-1968.
The real-life prison, used to play the fictitious Wakefield State Penitentiary, was the Junction City Prison Farm in Junction City, Ohio, which was about fifty miles outside of Columbus. The prison was built in 1904, and had been decommissioned two years prior to filming, and had had its own history of riot and rebellion. The film's Wakefield Penitentiary, is based on both the Tucker and Cummins State Prison Farms, in Arkansas.
One of two Robert Redford movies released in 1980 that were Oscar-nominated. This film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay, while the other movie Ordinary People (1980), received six Oscar nominations.
The punishment, conditions, corruption, and violence within the prison, depicted in this film, based on the Tucker State Prison Farm and Cummins State Prison Farm prison scandal, became the subject of the common law case of Holt v. Sarver (Arkansas) where it was determined that the Arkansas Prison System violated inmates constitutional rights.
This film's shooting schedule went over-time, and consequently Robert Redford had to start work on his directorial debut Ordinary People (1980), with very little time between projects.
At the height of his career and at just 43 years of age, Robert Redford would stay off the big screen for the next 4 years, returning for " The Natural ".
Morgan Freeman has appeared in a number of other prison movie, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Attica (1980), and The Execution of Raymond Graham (1985).
Second of three collaborations of Wilford Brimley and Robert Redford. The others were The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Natural (1984).
First of two prison movies for Robert Redford; the second was The Last Castle (2001).
The character played by M. Emmet Walsh, has the last name of Woodward. Perhaps a nod to Redford's character Bob Woodward in All the President's Men (1976), a film also co-starring Jane Alexander and John McMartin.
Actors Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford would co-star again in An Unfinished Life (2005) which debuted around a quarter of a century or twenty-five years later.