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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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").
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.
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.
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.
The trivia item 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.