The Onion Field (film)

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The Onion Field
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHarold Becker
Produced byWalter Coblenz
Written byJoseph Wambaugh
StarringJohn Savage
James Woods
Franklyn Seales
Ted Danson
Ronny Cox
Music byEumir Deodato
CinematographyCharles Rosher, Jr.
Edited byJohn W. Wheeler
Black Marble Productions
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures
Release date
  • September 7, 1979 (1979-09-07) (Toronto[1])
  • September 19, 1979 (1979-09-19) (New York City)
Running time
126 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$9,890,597 (US)[2]

The Onion Field is a 1979 American neo-noir[3] crime drama film directed by Harold Becker and written by Joseph Wambaugh, based on his 1973 true crime book The Onion Field. The film stars John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales and Ted Danson in his film debut.

Woods' performance as Greg Powell was the film's most widely praised element, earning the actor a Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award and his first Golden Globe nomination.


In 1963, LAPD detectives Karl Hettinger (Savage) and Ian Campbell (Danson) are kidnapped by criminals Greg Powell (Woods) and Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Seales). They are driven to an onion field near Bakersfield, where Campbell is shot and killed before Hettinger narrowly escapes as a cloud passes in front of the moon, plunging the onion field into darkness.

Hettinger's eyewitness account leads to the arrest of the two men, who are tried and convicted of first-degree murder. While they languish on death row, Powell and Smith learn how to exploit the legal system and after a series of appeals their sentences are reduced to life imprisonment following a court decision abolishing executions in California.

Meanwhile, Hettinger's physical condition and emotional state slowly deteriorate as his failure to act more aggressively on the night of the incident is questioned by those in authority and his fellow officers. Wracked with guilt and remorse, he experiences nightmares, impotence, weight loss, kleptomania, and thoughts of suicide.



The film was shot on location in Valencia, Los Angeles, Maricopa, and Taft in California. A courtroom of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County was used for the trial scenes. The jury panel was taken to an onion field in Valencia to inspect it as a replica of the scene of the crime.

Wambaugh himself helped produce the film and choose the people who would work on it, including actor Ted Danson, who made his big-screen debut. Wambaugh reportedly was determined to make a film superior to the 1977 one adapted from his novel The Choirboys, the script for which was done by another writer. Wambaugh sued the makers of The Choirboys and got his name removed from the credits.


The Onion Field premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 1979,[1] before opening in New York City on September 19.


The movie opened to positive praise as a true story of justice mishandled. Janet Maslin of The New York Times observed, "This is a strong, affecting story but it's also a straggly one, populated by tangential figures and parallel plotlines. The criminals' histories are every bit as convoluted and fascinating as those of the policemen they abducted. Even the courtroom drama is unusually complicated, introducing a new legal team with each new trial.... The film is generally crisp and at times exciting, but it's also full of incidents that are only sketchily explained, and minus the all-important narrative thread that might have provided a clear point of view."[4]

Variety called the film "a highly detailed dramatization" and said James Woods "is chillingly effective, creating a flakiness in the character that exudes the danger of a live wire near a puddle."[5]

Time Out London thought the film was "expertly performed" and added, "It's the usual heavy Wambaugh brew: police procedure closely observed without a trace of romanticism, suggesting simply that life in the force is psychological hell. So far, so good. But that very insistence on authenticity is followed by the film to the detriment of the narrative's dramatic structure; half way through, the whole thing begins to ramble badly. Engrossingly sordid, nevertheless."[6]


Recipient(s) Award Category Result Ref(s)
James Woods Kansas City Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor Won [7]
New York Film Critics Circle Best Supporting Actor (3rd place) Nominated [8]
National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actor (4th place)
(tied with James Mason for Murder by Decree)
[citation needed]
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama [9]

Home release[edit]

MGM Home Entertainment released the Region 1 DVD on September 17, 2002. The film is in anamorphic widescreen format with an audio track in English and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. Bonus features include commentary by director Harold Becker and a featurette about the making of the film.


  1. ^ a b Adilman, Sid (September 12, 1979). "Strong Opening For Toronto Festival". Variety. p. 7.
  2. ^ "The Onion Field (1979) - Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  3. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  4. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 19, 1979). "The Onion Field (1979)". The New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  5. ^ "Review: 'The Onion Field'". Variety. December 31, 1978. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
  6. ^ GA. "The Onion Field". Time Out London.
  7. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1970-79". 14 December 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  8. ^ "The Day - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  9. ^ "Onion Field, The". Retrieved 16 September 2017.

External links[edit]