This movie was inspired by the real 1971 helicopter rescue and breakout of Joel David Kaplan from a Mexican prison which was orchestrated by lawyer Vasilios Basil Choulos. Film Critic Roger Ebert has said of this: "Kaplan was the scion of an American sugar-and-molasses empire with Latin American connections, and in the early 1960s, he was a courier for Fidel Castro. The Mexicans imprisoned him in 1962 on a highly questionable murder charge, and there were rumors that the CIA was somehow involved. He was in prison nine years before his sister hired a California helicopter pilot to carry out a neat little mission spiriting Kaplan out of the prison yard. Ramparts published material about the CIA connection, but Kaplan wouldn't talk, then or later. The movie's naturally more concerned with the rescue mission than with any shadowy political implications. But there are a couple of leftovers from the original story in the sinister persons of a CIA operative and the hero's rich grandfather. They seem to be in cahoots, although how or why is a little unclear."
This was the first major studio film to be released in the now-common saturation pattern, debuting at over 1000 movie theaters simultaneously with 1300 prints in the USA. This was coupled with 17000 advertising radio spots. The Columbia studio claimed that this was "the most spectacular saturation blitz of any motion picture". Soon after, this wide release method was used for Jaws (1975) as well.
Actor Robert Duvall became interested in the gypsy culture whilst working with gypsy extras on the set of this movie. Duvall drew on this experience as a writer-director when he later made the film Angelo My Love (1983) about eight years later.
This movie was made and released about two years after its source book 'Ten Second Jailbreak' was first published in 1973. The book's full title is actually 'The Ten-Second Jailbreak: The Helicopter Escape Of Joel David Kaplan'. The authors were Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Eliot Asinof.
The helicopter used for the breakout scene is an Aerospatiale SA.313/318 Alouette II powered by a gas turbine engine, while the sound was dubbed from a Bell 47 piston-engined helicopter. It was flown by well-known film pilot Jim Gavin.
This movie was the first of two pictures that star Charles Bronson made with director Tom Gries. The second, made in the same year as this movie but mostly released in 1976, was Breakheart Pass (1975). The two had also previously worked in television together.
This was not the first escape from prison movie for star Charles Bronson. Bronson appeared in the classic film The Great Escape (1963) made and released about twelve years earlier. A tagline on an Australian movie poster for this film even connected with this by saying: "Mr. 'Tough Guy' engineers THE GREATEST ESCAPE since "The Great Escape"!!!".
Actor-director John Huston plays Harris Wagner in this Charles Bronson movie. About four years after this picture was made and released, Huston was scheduled to direct Bronson in Love and Bullets (1979). This was going to be the first movie where Huston directed Bronson. Pre-publicity advertisements for Love and Bullets (1979) announced this in trade paper 'Variety'. Huston left the picture due to creative differences with the films' producers having filmed just a few scenes and was replaced with director Stuart Rosenberg.
This movie is one of only two pictures starring Charles Bronson which use alliteration rhyming his last name with the picture's title. The words BRONSON - BREAKOUT share the same first two letters: "B" and "r". The other movie which also did this was Breakheart Pass (1975), interestingly, made by the same director (Tom Gries) and also made in the same year.
The prison of the story was supposed to be in Mexico. But director Tom Gries insisted that there was no prison in Mexico suitably impregnable where he could obtain maximum dramatic impact for the breakout action sequences. So, Gries took his cast and crew, his camera and his lights, to the Pyrenees in the south of France. Here, on a mountaintop near Perpignan, sits the grim pile known as the "Fort de Bellegarde". A single lane track winds up around the mountain to this bastion. The lore of the district is that, when the Nazi Gestapo used it as a high-security prison during World War II, many more men walked up that forbidding path than ever came down it.
Much of "Breakout" was filmed in the air. The helicopter camera plane, piloted by noted helicopter pilot flyer Jim Gavin [James W. Gavin], was used with the same mobility as a camera boom. It filmed actress Jill Ireland driving a top-down convertible speeding on a California-highway. Twenty feet above the car, director Tom Gries directed his star by walkie-talkie from the co-pilot's seat. On occasion, dialogue scenes taking place in a Piper Family Cruiser plane in full flight were taken from the chopper traveling at the same speed only a few yards away as, according to the story, the Piper raced across Mexico and flew at a very low level to evade radar detection. Flight expert Gavin commented at the time: "I believe 'Breakout' has some of the most exciting flight footage that's been shot since 'Howard Hughes' made Hell's Angels (1930)".
Every frame of film for "Breakout" was shot on an actual location carefully dressed to simulate the setting where, according to the fictional story, the action happened. Thus, bush pilot Charles Bronson's run-down airfield located, according to the screenplay, in Texas was actually Hawkins' Airport near Lancaster, California. It was made realistically Texan by truckloads of Fuller's Earth, tumbleweed, and sagebrush activated by off-camera wind machines.
The border airport, where prisoner Robert Duvall finally passes by U. S. Immigration officials to freedom, was actually a conversion of the Santa Monica, California Municipal Airport. Two other airports in the Los Angeles area served as backgrounds for the adventure - a private field near Burbank became the helicopter flying school where Charles Bronson learns how to fly the chopper into the prison, and an airstrip in a hidden valley near Newhall, California is the transfer point where the escaped prisoner gets out of the helicopter and into a small plane for the run to the border.
Charles Bronson has a line that is a quick reference to The Great Escape. While talking to Jill Ireland he asks if they're going to build two tunnels in case one is discovered. In The Great Escape, the prisoners build three tunnels. A nice gag by the screenwriters.