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The following written statement appears in the closing credits: "The producers are indebted to the Government of the Republic of Panama for permitting the exterior portions of this picture to be photographed in its country."
Norman Mailer, a Harvard graduate and World War II veteran, based his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, on his experiences as a sergeant in the South Pacific. The book, which was published in 1948 when Mailer was twenty-five, was considered shocking at the time, with its coarse language, sexual frankness, graphic battle scenes and aura of pessimism, but received much critical acclaim, being called one of the finest, most authentic novels about war. A September 1948 Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that playwright Lillian Hellman and Kermit Bloomgarten intended to produce a stage version of Mailer's best-selling novel in 1949, but the play was never produced.
In August 1949 Norma Productions, the newly formed company of producer Harold Hecht and actor Burt Lancaster, purchased Mailer's novel for a Warner Bros. release with Lancaster set to star. A biography on Lancaster states that he had intended to play "Red Valsen," and that he and Hecht assigned the script to writers Philip Stevenson and Joseph Mischel, both of whom were later blacklisted. Mailer, a friend of Lancaster, was given script approval, but doubted that a faithful screen adaptation of his book could be made. By December 1950, the project was canceled and the rights returned to Mailer. The Lancaster biography indicates that the actor did not think an anti-war film would succeed at that time.
An April 1954 Hollywood Reporter item reveals that producer Paul Gregory had acquired an option for the novel and, along with his partner, theater circuit owner William Goldman, had set a $3,000,000 budget for the film. In October 1954, Daily Variety announced that Robert Mitchum would star and Charles Laughton would write and direct the Gregory-Goldman production. Mitchum and Laughton had just completed work on Gregory's production of The Night of the Hunter (see below). A February 1955 Los Angeles Times item indicates that Lloyd Nolan was under consideration for the role of "Gen. Cummings." The following month another Los Angeles Times article noted that filmmakers Denis and Terry Sanders, who had made an Academy Award-winning featurette on the Civil War, A Time Out of War, were to assist Laughton on the production. According to a June 1955 Hollywood Reporter item, Walter Shumann was set to write the musical score. An October 1955 Los Angeles Times column stated that Laughton's script was three-hundred pages in length and featured seven major male roles and a December 1955 Los Angeles Times casting item reveals that Gregory hoped to sign Anthony Perkins for a role. A December 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item includes John McTaggart in the cast, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
In January 1956, Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column asserted that Gregory wanted out of the production, but that Goldman wanted to proceed. A biography on Laughton states that he reported to Goldman that it would take another year for him to edit the script down to a workable length. The additional time and the lack of financial success of The Night of the Hunter persuaded Goldman and Gregory to withdraw from the arrangement with Laughton, who never directed another film. The Laughton biography indicates that the Sanders brothers re-wrote the script entirely.
In October 1957, a Variety article noted that the film, partially funded by RKO Radio Pictures, was to receive distribution by Warner Bros. John Farrow is mentioned in the article as the "original" director when the production was slated to go before the cameras that previous March. The piece also noted that considerable background footage was shot in the summer of 1956 in Hawaii.
A February 1958 New York Times article described the film's production in Panama, indicating that more than 250 American soldiers at a U.S. base that protected the Panama Canal appeared in the film as extras. About a dozen Hawaiian-born American soldiers of Japanese decent played Japanese soldiers. Director Raoul Walsh is quoted in the article as saying the film would not stick too closely to the novel, as many of the incidents that were considered shocking at the time of the book's release had already appeared in other films. The female characters, Red's wife "Mildred" and "Hearn's" numerous girlfriends, only appear in brief flashbacks during the film. The flashbacks featuring Hearn also sharply contrast his cavalier civilian playboy behavior with his serious consideration of moral issues while a soldier.
Among the major changes from the book to the film is the more affirmative ending of the film. In the book, the idealist "Hearn" is killed and the sadistic "Croft" survives. Upon the film's release, Variety called it a "disappointment...bear[ing] little more than surface resemblance to the hard hitting (and foul-mouthed) Norman Mailer novel....It catches neither the spirit nor the intent of the original yarn...and becomes just another war picture." The New York Times review offered more praise, but admitted it was no more than a "surface recounting" of the book's drama. In 1963 Mailer filed suit against RKO Teleradio Pictures and Warner Bros. seeking reversion of all rights to The Naked and the Dead. The suit was dismissed.