The Longest Yard is a 1974 film about inmates at a prison who play American football against their guards. Burt Reynolds portrayed Paul "Wrecking" Crewe in the original, and the coach Nate Scarborough in the 2005 remake. The 1974 original was also the basis for the 2001 movie Mean Machine, starring Vinnie Jones as Danny Meehan, based on the character of Paul Crewe, and featuring football instead of American football. Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke appeared in the 1974 version as did the country legend George Jones.
The protagonist is Paul "Wrecking" Crewe (Burt Reynolds), former star pro football quarterback living with his wealthy girlfriend (Anitra Ford) in Palm Beach, Florida. After a fight with her, he gets drunk and "steals" her expensive Citroën Maserati automobile. He is surprised when a fleet of police cars follow him, so he escapes them and hides the car underwater, but he is later caught. This leads to an 18 month sentence in prison.
Crewe has difficulty getting along with the guards as well as with his fellow inmates. The convicts despise him because he was caught point shaving, the reason he was dismissed from the league. As his only friend, an inmate nicknamed Caretaker (James Hampton) put it, "Most of these boys have nothin', never had anything to start with. But you, you had it all. You could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandma's pension checks and none of us would have minded, but shaving points off of a football game, man, that's un-American!", (a similar quote is used in the 2005 remake, said by the same character, this time played by Chris Rock). Moreover, the sadistic, power-hungry warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert), a football fanatic who operates a semi-pro team made up of the prison's guard force, wants Crewe to form a team of inmates; under pressure from the guards' team's captain/coach, Captain Wilhelm Knauer (Ed Lauter), Crewe refuses, and is harassed by the guards and given backbreaking work as punishment. The guards at this prison are also very different from those at other prisons in that they are all big and fast enough to make an NFL roster. A scuffle with the guards ups his sentence to 3-5 years. Eventually, under pressure, Crewe relents and agrees to form a prisoner team to play the guards' team in an exhibition game. He is allowed to recruit the most dangerous and violent prisoners. Crewe finds difficulties in that several of the people inside the prison have no football experience, and he has no idea if the prisoners have enough talent to take on the guards. Adding to Crewe's problems, the black inmates at first refuse to play for they "no longer play ball for the Honkie's amusement" and like the other inmates are skeptical of Crewe's point shaving history. Crewe eventually builds trust amongst the cons, and all of them, including the black inmates, eventually come out to support Crewe and his cause by playing against the guards. Among the most impressive are Samson (Richard Kiel), a huge prisoner and former professional weightlifter, and Connie Shokner (Robert Tessier), a fearsome serial killer and martial arts expert. With the help of the clever Caretaker, veteran former pro player Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad), "Granny" Granville (Harry Caesar) and long term prisoner Pop (John Steadman) who remains in prison far past his original sentence for having struck Warden Hazen when the warden was just a rookie guard, as well as being aided by the warden's amorous secretary (Bernadette Peters), Crewe molds the otherwise violent, distrustful, rebellious men into a smoothly working football team which comes to be named the "Mean Machine". However, before the game, a jealous homosexual arsonist named Unger (Charles Tyner) schemes to kill Crewe by setting off an incendiary device in his cell. (Unger was about to return to general population after Crewe turned him to the warden for ratting on the prisoners' team during practices.) Caretaker is killed mistakenly in the blaze in Crewe's cell after he goes there to retrieve X-rays for Crewe, who is sitting in Caretaker's cell with Nate. As the game starts, the "Mean Machine" does well, and at halftime the game is close, with the guards leading, 15-13. However, Warden Hazen is angry the prisoners have gained a newfound sense of self-respect, teamwork and accomplishment and are in a good position to win the game. Hazen has always believed he must rule by fear, brutality and intimidation. He corners Crewe in the team locker room and says that the arsonist will testify Crewe had been an accessory to Caretaker's murder if the prisoners do not lose the game by at least 21 points. Crewe obtains a promise from Hazen that if he cooperates and throws the game as ordered, the prisoners will not be harmed. However, the conniving warden secretly breaks this promise, 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 quickly makes several deliberate mistakes putting the "Mean Machine" down by more than three touchdowns, 35-13, then purposely takes himself out of the game. With the prisoners demoralized, the guards as ordered take out their anger on the prisoners, causing several injuries.
At this point, a stunned Crewe turns to Pop to ask him if it had been worth it - trading the opportunity to strike the warden in exchange for a life sentence. Pop states that, for himself at least, it was worth it, and Crewe goes back into the game with a renewed sense of purpose. At first, the prisoners are angry with Crewe and provide him with no protection or aid. However, he quickly wins them back and, with the help of two quick touchdowns followed by a drop kick field goal, soon gets the "Mean Machine" back into the game. Nate, despite his bad knee, goes into the game to score one of the touchdowns, and, after doing so, is immediately cut down at the knees by a guard, crippling him. However, by this time the prisoners have rallied and their spirit cannot be broken. They have also turned the tables on the guards in terms of the violence, including a clothesline that (apparently) breaks a guard's neck, and Crewe deliberately and repeatedly throwing the ball as hard as possible at the genitals of the guard who crippled Nate. With seconds to go and the prisoners down, 35-30, the ball is in the prisoners' possession on the guards' one-yard line, the "longest yard" of the title. In a long slow-motion sequence, Crewe bootlegs to the outside but reverses directions. Finally he cuts in and attempts to hurdle several players into the end-zone. The first hit sends Crewe up and over the line into the end zone as he and several guards crash into the end zone for the touchdown with no time left, the "Mean Machine" winning, 36-35.
As the prisoners and the crowd celebrate, Crewe walks off across the field in what appears to be an attempt to mingle with the crowd and escape. The warden sees this and orders Capt. Knauer to shoot Crewe. Knauer calls out to Crewe several times as the warden barks for him to shoot. At the last moment, Crewe picks up the game ball and walks back towards Warden Hazen. Crewe then hands the ball to the warden, telling him, "Stick this in your trophy case." A number of the actors had previously played professional football. Burt Reynolds played for Florida State University (and appeared to be on his way to the NFL before a series of injuries ended his career). Mike Henry (Rasmussen) played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams. Joe Kapp (Walking Boss) played quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Ray Nitschke (Bogdanski) was a middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, four years after the movie was released, and Pervis Atkins (Mawabe) played for the Los Angeles Rams, the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. Also appearing as prisoners is Ernie Wheelwright, who played with the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, and Ray Ogden, who played with the St. Louis Cardinals, the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears. Sonny Sixkiller (who played Indian) was a collegiate star as a quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies from 1970-1972.