When John Wayne is dragged into the river, a child calls out, "Dad!". This was his three-year-old son Ethan Wayne, who was watching off camera and knew how ill his father was. Wayne nearly contracted pneumonia from filming this scene.
Dean Martin later said of John Wayne, "Someone else would have laid around, feeling sorry for himself, for a year. But Duke, he just doesn't know how to be sick . . . he's recuperating the hard way. He's two loud speaking guys in one. Me, when people see me, they sometimes say, 'Oh, there goes Perry Como.' But there's only one John Wayne, and nobody makes any mistakes about that."
This picture marked the return of John Wayne to work after having a cancerous lung and two ribs removed just four months earlier. He insisted on doing some of his own stunts to show the public that the illness hadn't slowed him down.
Tommy Kirk was fired from the film after being arrested for possession of marijuana at a party on Christmas Eve 1964. Photographs of him wearing police handcuffs made the front pages of newspapers, and consequently he found it increasingly difficult to get film roles.
When Bud tells John they could be famous like the Dalton gang, John reminds him the Daltons "were hung". Actually, three members of the Dalton gang were shot to pieces by the outraged citizens of Coffeyville, Kansas, when the gang tried to rob both town banks simultaneously in 1892. Survivor Emmett Dalton was shot 23 times, and spent 14 years in prison.
After John Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer on September 13, 1964, he suggested Kirk Douglas should take his part in the movie. Henry Hathaway was determined not to recast, insisting that only Wayne should play John Elder. The producers suggested Robert Mitchum or William Holden in case Wayne did not survive surgery or recover in time.
Despite this being a big-budget movie with a large cast, Karl Swenson was utilized to play two parts. He played "Doc Isdell" and also the bartender in the scene where the Dean Martin character auctioned his eye. The bartender part actually had more lines of dialogue.
John Wayne, aged 57, was 36 years older than Michael Anderson Jr., who played his younger brother Bud. It is estimated that Wayne's character John Elder was supposed to be in his late 30s or early 40s.
According to the tombstone, Bass Elder was born in 1834 and died in 1898, making him 63 or 64 at the time of his death. The film is set in 1898 or early 1899, and his eldest son is played by 57-year-old John Wayne.
Henry Hathaway had previously directed Dennis Hopper in From Hell to Texas (1958), where they had personality clashes. Here, there were no such clashes. Hathaway even told Hopper that he had become a better, smarter actor since then.
In a December 1994 interview with Charlie Rose, Dennis Hopper credited John Wayne with saving his career, as Hopper acknowledged that because of his insolent behavior, he could not find work in Hollywood. Hopper stated that because he was the son-in-law of Margaret Sullavan, Wayne hired Hopper for a role in the film.
Because he had his lung removed, John Wayne relied on an oxygen tank on location for the film. In fact, he required the use of the tank a lot because the movie was shot primarily on location in Durango, Mexico, which is six thousand feet above sea level.
Paramount Pictures purchased the story by William H. Wright and Talbot Jennings in 1955. The story concerned five brothers and centered around a cattle drive from Texas to Colorado. Samuel J. Briskin was assigned as producer. Frank Burt was to write the script, John Sturges was going to direct and Alan Ladd was to star, making a return to Paramount after several years' absence--he still owed Paramount one film. Noel Langley signed to write a version of the script and filming was to start in April 1956. However, in July 1956 it was announced that Ladd bought himself out of his Paramount commitment by paying $135,000 and he would no longer make the film (Henry Hathaway put this figure at $250,000).
The film was widely criticized for being overlong and too slow. The review in "The New York Times" stated: "As penned by three scenarists, the picture is far too long. The leisurely opening - the funeral of the unseen mother and the furtive home-coming of the ne'er-do-well sons - is oblique and pretentious."