Stanley Kubrick approached Kirk Douglas with the script. Douglas instantly fell in love with it, telling Kubrick "Stanley, I don't think this picture will ever make a nickel, but we have to make it." Douglas's words proved to be quite prophetic - the film was not a success at the box office.
The epic battle sequence was filmed in a 5,000-sq.-yd. pasture rented from a German farmer. After paying for the crops that would have been raised that season, the production team moved in with eight cranes and as many as 60 crew members working around the clock for three weeks to create trenches, shell holes and the rough, muddy terrain of a World War I battleground.
For box office reasons, Stanley Kubrick intended to impose a happy ending. After several draft scripts he changed his mind and restored the novel's original ending. Producer James B. Harris then had to inform studio executive Max E. Youngstein and risk rejection of the change. Harris managed by simply having the entire final script delivered without a memo of the changes, on the assumption that nobody in the studio would actually read it.
The prison scene where the men discuss their fates ran overtime on a Saturday. Stanley Kubrick could not get what he wanted, and producer James B. Harris came to the set to tell the director after take 63 that overtime was not allowed in Germany. Kubrick resisted stopping in a rare show of temper. He finally got what he wanted by take 74.
Was banned in France for its negative portrayal of the French army. Switzerland also banned the film (until 1978), accusing it of being "subversive propaganda directed at France." Belgium required that a foreword be added stating that the story represented an isolated case that did not reflect upon the "gallantry of the French soldiers."
Stanley Kubrick, widely known as a perfectionist, shot 68 takes of the doomed men's "last meal" scene. Because the details of the scene required that the actors appear to be engaged in the act of eating, a new roast duck had to be prepared for almost every take.
Actor Richard Anderson remembered, "The trench was gruesome. It just reeked, and then the weather was so lousy - it was cold, it was freezing and overcast and gray. We were all sick. We all had colds, we were all sick from the first week. We all looked awful, but it certainly added to the movie."
Director Stanley Kubrick met Christiane Kubrick (then Christiane Harlan) during filming; she performs the singing at the end of the film. He divorced his second wife the following year to marry her, and they remained married until his death in 1999.
Special effects supervisor Erwin Lange was forced to appear before a special German government commission before he was permitted to acquire the huge number of explosives needed for the battle scenes. Over a ton of explosives were discharged in the first week of filming alone.
Stanley Kubrick's numerous fluid tracking shots required that the trenches be two feet wider than the original World War I trenches - six feet as opposed to four feet - to allow room for the roving camera dollies. Although the technical director did object to the widening, the duckboards the camera rolled on were authentic.
The French authorities considered the film an offense to the honor of their army and prohibited its exhibition in France until 1975. In Germany the film wasn't allowed to be shown for a couple of years after its release to avoid any strain in relations with France.
Although the story takes place on France's western front, Stanley Kubrick chose to shoot the film in and around Munich, Germany. Most interior scenes were filmed at Bavaria's Geiselgasteig Studios, and the court-martial scenes were shot in nearby Schleissheim Castle, an 18th-century structure then serving as a national museum. Just beyond this location is the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial.
In an early attempt to sell the project to a studio, Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris rented military uniforms and gathered several male friends to pose for a photograph that would capture the essence of their story. They affixed the photo to the cover of each screenplay copy.
When Kirk Douglas was first approached for the role, he was committed to a Broadway play. Stanley Kubrick then met Gregory Peck in connection with How to Steal a Million (1966); Peck was interested but was also unavailable. Douglas' play was postponed and then Peck also became available; Douglas got in first and got the part.
Col. Dax's headquarters was placed in a severely damaged building, which looks like it was hit by shells. This set was actually the old castle of Schleissheim, opposite the-18th century castle, used as the set for the court martial, etc. During WWII the factories near Schleissheim were hit by an air raid. Some bombs fell on the old castle, causing heavy damage. So Col. Dax's headquarters were not set up by the film crew, they were actually damaged by war.
Generals Paul Mireau and George Brulard appear to be based loosely on two real French generals, Robert Nivelle and Philippe Petain. Nivelle was a French Army Commander-in-Chief who ordered an unsuccessful assault on German positions that resulted in massive French casualties. Nivelle was sacked and replaced by Petain, who ordered the execution of dozens of French soldiers who had mutinied.
Kubrick's working with Kirk Douglas on this film directly led to him replacing Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus (1960) in 1960. Mann and Douglas had had a falling out on the production of that film so Douglas asked for Kubrick to direct.
Composer Gerald Fried actually created two main title themes for the movie. While most prints of the film features his arrangement of the French national anthem, "Marseillaise," another version opened with an original composition by Fried. The latter version was created for select European markets that might have taken offense at the anthem's use in a film so critical of France's military leadership.
Kem Dibbs is credited as a cast member in the opening credits, but is omitted in the more comprehensive end credits. Therefore, the opening credits are listed first and the rest of cast list is taken from the end credits, as required by IMDb rules.
During the filming actor Timothy Carey (character Pvt. Maurice Ferol) was disruptive. He also faked his own kidnapping for personal publicity, causing Kubrick and Producer James B. Harris to fire him. Because of this, they were unable to show the three condemned soldiers during the battle scene, and a double was used during the scene when a priest was hearing his character's confession.
In 1938, director George Stevens wanted to make a film from the source of this one: the Humphrey Cobb novel of the same title. (Source: biography Five Came Back by Mark Harris at 55 minutes into the audio book.) RKO did not want to produce an antiwar film, anticipating that war was in the offing, and steered him to direct Gunga Din (1939) instead.