An urban myth regarding the casting of Frank Sinatra was that the Mafia made Columbia Pictures an offer they couldn't refuse. This of course was fictionalized in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather (1972) and its subsequent film adaptation. The real reason for Sinatra's casting was mainly his then-wife Ava Gardner, who was shooting a film for Columbia head Harry Cohn and suggested to him that he use Sinatra. Although initially reluctant, Cohn eventually saw this as being a good idea, as Sinatra's stock was so low at the time that he would sign for a very low salary. Sinatra had been lobbying hard for the role,even suggesting he would do it for nothing, but he was eventually hired for the token amount of $8,000.
Burt Lancaster was nervous when he started the film. Most of his previous pictures had been fairly lightweight productions, and this was his first "serious" role. He was especially intimidated by Montgomery Clift's skill and intensity.
The now classic scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the rushing water on the beach was not written to take place there. The idea to film with the waves hitting them was a last minute inspiration from the director Fred Zinnemann.
Montgomery Clift threw himself into the character of Prewitt, learning to play the bugle (even though he knew he'd be dubbed) and taking boxing lessons. Fred Zinnemann said, "Clift forced the other actors to be much better than they really were. That's the only way I can put it. He got performances from the other actors, he got reactions from the other actors that were totally genuine."
Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and author James Jones were very close during the filming, frequently embarking on monumental drinking binges. Clift coached Sinatra on how to play Maggio during their more sober moments, for which Sinatra was eternally grateful.
The MPAA banned photos of the famous Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr passionate kiss on the beach for being too erotic. Many prints had shortened versions of the scene because projectionists would cut out frames to keep as souvenirs.
The scene in which Maggio meets Prew and Lorene in the bar after he walks off guard duty, was actually Frank Sinatra's screen test for the part of Maggio. To impress director Fred Zinnemann, he did an ad-lib using olives as dice and pretending to shoot craps. The entire sequence was kept as is and used in the picture.
Joan Crawford was originally meant to play Karen Holmes, but when she insisted on shooting the film with her own cameraman, the studio balked. They decided to take a chance and cast Deborah Kerr, who then was struggling with her ladylike stereotype, to play the adulterous military wife who has an affair with Burt Lancaster. The casting worked and Ms. Kerr's career thereafter enjoyed a new, sexier versatility.
As scripted, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster's classic clinch on the beach was to be filmed standing up. It was Lancaster's idea to do it horizontally in the surf. The scene was filmed at Halona Cove on the eastern side of Oahu, near Koko Head Crater and Sandy Beach, and the location became a major tourist attraction for years after.
Montgomery Clift didn't manage to move like a boxer despite extensive boxing lessons, so he had to be doubled by a real boxer for the long shots in the boxing match. The fight had to be carefully edited so the close-ups and other shots matched satisfactorily. Nonetheless, the use of the double is obvious if you pay attention to the details.
The James Jones novel was a best seller when it was released. Ernest Borgnine always bragged to his friends that if they ever made a film of the book, he'd play a part. Shortly after saying this, he was actually called to audition for the film, where he played Fatso Judson.
A nationwide search of Army surplus stores yielded pre-Pearl Harbor style Springfield rifles, canvas leggings, campaign hats and flat steel helmets. The extras - who were all real soldiers - were all drilled to learn how to use all this outdated equipment.
In the bar seen where Magio asks Prewett for a cigarette he says "gimme a nail." A nail was a nail for his coffin. This was a common expression popular at the time that referred to the health hazards from smoking.
A false rumor has been circulating for years that George Reeves, who played Sgt. Maylon Stark, had his role drastically edited after preview audiences recognized him as TV's Adventures of Superman (1952). According to director Fred Zinnemann, screenwriter Daniel Taradash and assistant director Earl Bellamy, the rumor is false. Every scene written for Reeves' character was filmed, and each of those scenes is still present in its entirety in the film as released. This rumor is nonetheless repeated as truth in Hollywoodland (2006), a movie about the investigation into Reeves' death.
The US Army was initially reluctant to lend their co-operation to the production. Producer Buddy Adler had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Signal Corps during WWII and was able to bring his influence to bear.
At the first meeting at the beach, Warden makes a comment about Karen "... acting like Lady Nancy Astor's horse...". This is a variant of "Mrs Astor's Pet Horse" and refers to someone who is either overly dressed-up or made-up, or full of self-importance ("Dictionary of American Regional English").
Fred Zinnemann was initially reluctant to make the film, as he had an inherent distrust of Columbia head Harry Cohn. He also felt that in the then climate of McCarthyism (see Joseph McCarthy), to voice anything that cast any doubt over such institutions as the Army, the Navy or the FBI was just asking for trouble.
Director Fred Zinneman disputes the rumor that star Montgomery Clift was too drunk to say the last line in Frank Sinatra's death scene. According to Zinneman he and Columbia studio boss disagreed about the last line. When Sinatra's dead body was put into the jeep for removal, Clift's Prewitt character says, " See that his head don't bump." Cohn wanted Clift's line cut and it was... over Zinneman's objections.
Frank Sinatra credited Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift with helping him find his feet dramatically for the film. Prior to this, most of Sinatra's film engagements had been comedic or in musicals but by working alongside such heavyweight actors, Sinatra was able to hone his craft in new directions. Indeed, he and Lancaster remained friends for the rest of their lives. Sadly, the relationship with Clift was not so long-lasting. Three years after From Here to Eternity (1953), Clift was involved in a life-altering car crash that required facial reconstruction and left him addicted to pain medication. This, coupled with his alcoholism, made him a very different person from the actor who played Prewitt. At a party thrown by Sinatra, Clift made a drunken pass at one of the singer's entourage that ended up with him being thrown out of the party and denied access to Sinatra and his inner circle.
Deborah Kerr's characterization and performance in this movie is considered to be a cast against type as Kerr had previously been typecast in lady like roles and this part was considered a breakthrough for her into more sexy characters.
The US army had a censorship stipulation that there should be no depictions of military sloppiness, hypocrisy, homosexuality or brutality. Naturally, they were less than thrilled by James Jones' novel and weren't particularly enamored by the film version either.
Columbia bought the rights to James Jones' bestseller for only $82,000, a relatively low figure mainly because no other studio was prepared to go near such adult material. (The book has some homosexual scenes, none of which made it to the film version.) Also, as the book ran to over 800 pages, it was generally considered unfilmable.
Montgomery Clift had real difficulty letting the character of Prewitt go after filming was completed and would often rock up drunk in Hollywood drinking establishments with his bugle and Hawaiian shirts.
In the book, Karen Holmes reveals that the reason why she can't have children was because her adulterous husband infected her with gonorrhea which led to her having to have a hysterectomy. Naturally this was far too racy for 1953 film censors so had to be toned down.
Frank Sinatra had personal problems of his own. The collapse of his marriage to Ava Gardner weighed heavily on him; it got so bad he announced to Montgomery Clift one night that he was going to kill himself.
Burt Lancaster's anxiety manifested itself in a pattern of difficult behaviour, nitpicking over his lines, the camera angles, and his appearance. During breaks in filming he would go off by himself to jog or do push-ups. He argued so much with the normally even-tempered Fred Zinnemann, he finally provoked the director into telling him to go "screw" himself.
To keep from overrunning Harry Cohn's 120-minute dictate, Fred Zinnemann was forced to forego some scenes he particularly prized. One was a scene near the end where Prewitt mistakenly believes Pearl Harbor is being attacked by Germans.
Of all the battles Fred Zinnemann had to fight with the Columbia front office, the one he was proudest of winning was against "the boys in New York," i.e., the sales department. The marketing people thought the film would gross at least an extra million if it were shot in colour. But Zinnemann was able to persuade Harry Cohn that black and white was more suitable for the film's stark, gritty themes and that colour would have softened and trivialized it.
Deborah Kerr's portrayal of an adulterous wife was a wild choice for the actress, better known for playing prim and proper roles. She had instructed her agent to lobby for the part but when Columbia head Harry Cohn took the call, he slammed down the phone, thinking it a ridiculous suggestion. He told Fred Zinnemann and writer Daniel Taradash about the call when they took a meeting, little realizing that Zinnemann and Taradash found the casting of Kerr an intriguing proposition.
Montgomery Clift's intensity extended to an obsessive drive to have every detail down right. He spent long hours of practice on military drills. He copied Jamie Jones' mannerisms and speech patterns. He insisted on playing his bugle loudly and repeatedly, even though he was dubbed, so that he would accurately appear to be playing it on screen. Fred Zinnemann's wife Renee, said, "He worked so hard at all of this that he was almost worn out by the time they started shooting."
To land the part of Maggio, Frank Sinatra had to audition for the role. Columbia head Harry Cohn refused to pay for his screen test, insisting that Sinatra foot the bill for it himself. Sinatra agreed and flew over to Hawaii from Africa where he was with his then-wife Ava Gardner on the set of Mogambo (1953)_.
Fred Zinnemann lobbied for and was allowed to include a sequence featuring a group of soldiers improvising a song "Re-Enlistment Blues", which Zinnemann hoped would be as popular and recognizable a movie song as Tex Ritter's "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" had been for High Noon (1952). Despite the catchy tune, the song didn't become a top forty hit.
The song "Reenlistment Blues" in the movie is sung by finger-picking guitar legend Merle Travis who is playing his specially modified Martin guitar. It had a modified neck installed by his friend Paul Bigsby to be more like the Gibson electric guitars he played. The headstock has been mistaken for a Fender guitar but is a custom design. The guitar now belongs to Merle's son Thom Bresch. It's said the song was written by James Jones.
Early in the film, Montgomery Clift's character complains to one of his fellow soldiers that he doesn't understand Warden, the character portrayed by Burt Lancaster. The irony here is that Clift is directing the line to actor Jack Warden.
Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr only share one scene in the entire film and it features no dialogue between the two. Clift's character Prewitt has just arrived at the military base and is being shown around by Warden when Karen pulls up in a car and walks into the base behind them.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The James Jones novel was deemed unfilmable for a long time because of its negative portrayal of the US army (which would prevent the army from supporting the film with people and hardware/logistics) and the profanity. To get army support and pass the censorship of the time crucial details had to be changed. The brothel became a night club, the whores hostesses. The profanity was removed, the brutal treatment in the stockade toned down and Captain Holmes removed from the army instead of promoted at the end.
Ernest Borgnine, while filming Marty (1955), went into the Bronx to get into character for the role. While there, just walking around, he was harassed badly by some local toughs who were enraged that Borgnine's character had killed Frank Sinatra's character'. He was only able to clam them down by explaining that in reality, he was good friends with Sinatra, as well as being a fellow Italian-American.