Director William A. Wellman wanted Paul Newman for the lead with Clint Eastwood as his best friend, Duke Sinclair. When Newman opted to do "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" instead, the studio insisted on the lead part going to contract player Tab Hunter. Wellman thought the chemistry between Hunter and Eastwood wrong and ironically replaced Eastwood with one of the actor's best friends, David Jannsen. Eastwood ended up playing a smaller supporting role.
Director William A. Wellman based the film on his experiences as a combat pilot during World War I. While stationed in France, Wellman joined the French Foreign Legion's Lafayette Flying Corps, N.87, les Chats Noir (Black Cat Group). The plane he flew was Nieuport 24 fighter, which he named "Celia" after his mother. He was credited with three recorded "kills" of enemy aircraft, plus five probable kills. Wellman was shot down in combat and survived the crash, but walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He received the Croix du Guerre for his service. After the war, Wellman returned home and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps for two years, where he taught combat tactics to new pilots at Rockwell Field in San Diego. The main character, Thad Walker (played by Tab Hunter), is based on a fellow pilot who flew with Wellman in the Lafayette Escadrille.
This was director William A. Wellman's last film. Wellman, who had previously directed numerous aviation dramas -- including Wings, the 1927 winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture -- saw Lafayette Escadrille as a tribute to his fellow World War I combat pilots. But the studio, Warner Bros., gave Wellman a very low budget, and Wellman felt he could not make the film he wanted to make. Originally, the film had a tragic ending for Thad Walker and his Parisian bride, but studio head Jack Warner demanded a happy ending. When Wellman refused, the studio took the film away and shot a new ending with Tab Hunterand Etchika Choureau. Afterwards, Wellman decided to retire from directing. His son, William Wellman Jr. later said that his father "just got tired of fighting with the studios."
The scene where Thad Walker escorts a U.S. General (played by Paul Fix) to a brothel is based on a real incident from William A. Wellman's wartime experience. During the war, Wellman supposedly encountered General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing in a Paris brothel. Several years later, Pershing came to Hollywood to tour the Paramount Studios, where Wellman was working as a cameraman. When Pershing saw Wellman, who was standing in a line of movie technicians, the general said to him, "I'm sure I know you. Have we met before?" Wanting to protect the general's reputation, Wellman replied, "Yes, but I'd rather not say where, sir." Pershing and Wellman later had a private meeting in a back office at the studio, where they talked about their wartime service. The meeting had a positive effect on Wellman's career, as the studio executives took notice of him. Wellman was promoted to Assistant Director, and from there soon became a full Director.