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The working title for the film was Sacred and Profane. With the exception of Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida, the onscreen cast were presented in the opening credits with brief clips from the film. According to a Hollywood Reporter November 1956 news item, M-G-M purchased Tom Chamales' novel Never So Few before its publication. A Hollywood Reporter item from that same month and year noted that Sam Zimbalist would produce the film. A December 1958 Daily Variety item stated that screenwriter Millard Kaufman was being considered to direct. Other news items indicated that John Sturges was in long-pending negotiations to direct. An October 1958 Hollywood Reporter casting note stated that Roger Moore was being considered for the role of "Maj. Danny De Mortimer." A modern source claims that Sinatra initially had a role rewritten to accommodate Sammy Davis, Jr., but after the two quarreled, Sinatra had the part reworked for Steve McQueen.
Hollywood Reporter items from September and December 1958 revealed that shooting had been approved in Burma (now known as Myanmar) by the local government, but by April 1959 a Los Angeles Times item indicated the film was to be shot in Hawaii. The Variety review noted, however, that the bulk of the film was shot on the M-G-M Culver City, CA lot and other domestic sites, highlighted by location footage in Burma, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India. The Hollywood Reporter review stated that Chamales was a member of the famed "Merrill's Marauders," a unit that served with distinction in Burma during World War II. According to the Hollywood Reporter review, the plot point within Never So Few which shows the anti-Communist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek providing authorization for warlords to cross borders and kill indiscriminately during World War II was based on fact. Chamales had made the same accusation in a non-fiction article, "Betrayal in China," published in True Magazine in January 1958. The review related that the Los Angeles Consul General for the Republic of China vehemently denied the accusation, and the reviewer was unable to substantiate it in his own research.