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Niven Busch's novel was purchased by RKO in 1944. According to a November 16, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, the studio intended to star John Wayne and Hedy Lamarr in Busch's adaptation of his novel. A August 2, 1944 letter sent from MPAA head Joseph I. Breen to William Gordon at RKO included in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library, objected to Busch's script because "it seems to be a story of illicit sex and murder for revenge, without the full compensating moral values required by the Code." Busch wanted to borrow Jennifer Jones from David O. Selznick's company, but according to modern sources, Selznick did not want Jones to appear in a film with a first-time producer. In November 1944, Selznick purchased the rights to the novel from RKO and enlarged the concept of the film to provide a suitable showcase for his star. He hired King Vidor to direct, and wrote the script himself from an adaptation by Oliver H. P. Garrett. According to modern sources, Selznick invented the ending in which "Pearl" and "Lewt" kill each other. In the novel, Pearl kills Lewt and then rides away to join "Jesse." Later, Selznick added the opening scenes with Tilly Losch and Herbert Marshall to "explain" Pearl's background, according to modern sources.
Scenes were filmed on location in Tucson, AZ, and Lasky Mesa and Sonora, CA and, according to contemporary sources, inclement weather in Arizona and California interfered with filming. A strike by employees of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Screen Actors' Guild, and the Teamsters' Union interrupted the production in April 1945. In early November 1945, the production was suspended again because of Jones's illness. Then, in August 1946, shortly before the end of filming, differences with Selznick forced Vidor to walk off the set. According to a May 19, 1946 New York Times article, Selznick asked William Dieterle to complete the picture. Although Dieterle is credited in the program for the film's initial release with directing "a substantial number of key sequences and scenes throughout the entire picture," Selznick had decided that Vidor should receive sole screen credit for the film. The New York Times article reports that Dieterle protested this decision to the Screen Directors Guild, which agreed that only Vidor should receive credit. The program also acknowledges the help of directors Josef von Sternberg, William Cameron Menzies and Chester Franklin, although the exact nature of their respective contributions was not mentioned. According to a modern source, Selznick sought William Boyd to appear in the film, but Boyd declined the role. A April 6, 1945 memo from Selznick to Joseph McMillan Johnson, head of Selznick's Art Department, reprinted in a modern source, indicates that von Sternberg acted as special visual consultant on the film. A August 16, 1945 memo from Selznick to Vidor indicates that Franklin and Menzies acted as second unit directors. A January 19, 1947 New York Times article reports that a 1946 strike at the Technicolor plant prevented the processing of enough prints for nationwide release, and that Selznick was barely able to open the film at two theaters in Los Angeles in time to qualify for the 1946 Academy Awards.
After Selznick sold abandoned properties to RKO and Twentieth Century-Fox, United Artists, which had agreed to release Duel in the Sun, objected that he had broken his contract with the company and refused to distribute the film, according to a December 2, 1946 Hollywood Reporter report. On November 18, 1946, Hollywood Reporter reported a rumor that M-G-M would release the film, which was denied by the studio. Selznick then formed his own distribution company, Selznick Releasing Organization, according to a Hollywood Reporter article on December 12, 1946. On December 20, 1946, Hollywood Reporter reported that Selznick intended to file a suit for damages against United Artists and co-owners Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin for maliciously conspiring to deprive his company of a distribution agreement executed in October 1942. The matter was eventually settled out of court.
Information in the MPAA/PCA files reveals that Selznick worked closely with the MPAA to ensure that the film would meet Production Code requirements. Despite the MPAA's approval of the finished picture, the National Legion of Decency condemned the film. They protested that even though the characters of Lewt and Pearl die, there is no sense that what they did was wrong. After Selznick recut the film a month later, the Legion gave it a "B" (objectional in parts for all) rating. In May 1947, a second re-edited version was released with an added prologue and epilogue. The prologue emphasized that the "Sinkiller" was not an ordained minister, in response to protests from Protestant churchmen, who felt the character made ministers appear ludicrous. The epilogue summarized the awards that the film had won and informed audiences that the main characters died because they violated the laws of God. According to a June 10, 1947 article in Look, a sexy dance in the "sump" scene was cut, and the scene in which Lewt forces himself on Pearl was shortened to eliminate any indication that a rape had occurred.
On June 19, 1947, Mississippi Representative John E. Rankin introduced House Resolution 250, which called for the House to demand that the District of Columbia police close a theater which was showing the film because it was "filthy, debasing, and insulting to the moral instincts of decent humanity." New York Representative Emanuel Celler objected that passing the resolution would make Rankin, who had not seen the picture, the "keeper of the nation's morals" and added that the film was no longer playing in the District of Columbia. The House Resolution never emerged from the District of Columbia Committee, where it was sent for study. Eventually, the film was passed by censor boards throughout the country, with the exception of Memphis, TN, where it was not shown until 1959.
A April 7, 1946 New York Times article reported that, to sell the film, which cost between five and six million dollars, according to contemporary sources, Selznick spent another two million dollars on exploitation, and initiated a policy of saturation booking: Wherever the film opened, Selznick blanketed the area with multiple screenings. According to a May 10, 1947 Cue article, this was the first film to be marketed in this way. The article continued that in New York, for example, the film was shown simultaneously in fifty theaters. Lillian Gish was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of "Laura Belle" and Jennifer Jones's performance received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.