Herman Melville had been writing poetry for 30 years when he returned to fiction with "Billy Budd" in late 1888. Still unfinished when he died in 1891, it was forgotten. Melville's biographer accidentally stumbled upon it when going through a trunk of the writer's papers in his granddaughter's New Jersey home in 1919. Melville's widow worked to help complete it, and it was finally published in 1924. Over the years other unsatisfactory versions were published, but it wasn't until Melville's original notes were found that the definitive version was ultimately published in 1962. Ironically Peter Ustinov's film version was released the same year.
Independent producer Frank Gilbert acquired the screen rights in 1956 and assigned the adaptation to DeWitt Bodeen. The rights were later sold to independent producer/director Robert Rossen, who worked with Bodeen on a second screenplay. By the time it reached the screen in 1962, it had been sold to Peter Ustinov, who wrote the final shooting script but gave Bodenn a co-writer credit.
When the film opened in Britain in November, 1962, there was no mention of DeWitt Bodeen in the screenplay credits or the film's advertising; the screenplay was credited to Peter Ustinov and Robert Rossen. However, whenever the film has been shown on British television (it has been televised on only a handful of occasions in the UK), the credits have instead named Bodeen as Ustinov's only collaborator and made no mention of Rossen.
Ustinov wrote that there was friction between the British and Spanish elements of the crew, partly because of the former insisting on their union breaks for tea and on having more sophisticated lavatory facilities.
Stamp stated that he was disconcerted by Robert Ryan keeping him at a distance during filming. He later realised that this had been done deliberately to create the right tension between their characters.
Robert Ryan and John Neville became close friends during the shoot. In 1967, as Artistic Director of the Nottingham Playhouse, Neville was able to fulfill Ryan's ambition to play "Long Day's Journey Into Night", and "Othello" on stage.