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The working title of this film was The End of the World. The film ends with the words "The Beginning" on the screen. According to press material written by director Randall MacDougall, the 1901 novel on which the film was loosley based, The Purple Cloud, by Matthew Phipps Shiel, was purchased by a major studio in 1927. MacDougall called the novel "one of the first to concern itself with man's growing capacity to utterly destroy himself." According to various news items, Paramount planned to make the film in 1940 under the title The Last Man in the World and was negotiating for Ren Clair to direct and Conrad Veidt to star.
Following the atomic bombings in Japan in August 1945, a number of producers were preparing films to deal with the subject of the end of civilization, including Frank Capra, M-G-M and Hal Wallis. When Paramount, in December 1945, decided to revive the Shiel project, using a script by James Hilton based on the novel, Los Angeles Examiner commented, "Stand back, boys! Now it's Paramount throwing another bomb into the atomic story ring." At that time, Zoltan Korda was to direct and Ray Milland to star. In August 1950, Los Angeles Times announced that George Pal planned to make a film for Paramount based on Hilton's script. According to MacDougall, Sol Siegel purchased the rights to the novel in 1956 and decided to marry concerns about racial tensions to those in the novel about survivors in a world nearly destroyed. (The three characters in the original novel were Caucasians.) According to MacDougall, "Siegel felt strongly, as do many historians, that these two problems are interrelated and that we must solve both in order to solve either." Siegel formed an alliance with Harry Belafonte's new company, Harbel Productions, in 1957 to produce the film.
MacDougall explained the concept of the film, as worked out between himself, Siegel and producer George Englund, as that of "the spirit of man is indomitable, unconquerable and impervious to either the threat, or actuality of the ultimate destruction." He wrote that the film "makes no pretense of solving the problems of man" and described the climax as "a reaffirmation of the truism that force solves nothing." In a letter published in Los Angeles Mirror-News, following the release of the film, independent producer Arch Oboler related that he heard that an "indecisive ending" was forced on MacDougall. Oboler also pointed out that "certain aspects" of this film "are somewhat similar" to his 1951 film Five, which also had as a character an African-American survivor of a nuclear holocaust (see entry above for more information on that film).
Time stated that the ending "was reshot after a big front-office foofaraw." A November 1958 New York Times article on the film related that location shooting had taken place in New York a year earlier, and studio work in Hollywood was completed in June 1958, but a decision was made to return to New York to reshoot some of the material. MacDougall stated at that time, "Some of the stuff we had for our ending as well as the footage in other parts of the film done in Hollywood was not so powerful and authentic as the material we got here [in New York] last year. So, we decided to try again." In a Los Angeles Examiner article, MacDougall commented, "The precise ending must take place in the minds of those who see the picture. It was not our purpose in making the picture to tell people what to think. They must think for themselves." According to a biography of Belafonte, he and co-stars, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer were not satisfied with the treatment of racial issues in the film and complained to Siegel during production.
Reviews generally admired the quality of the production, but criticized the ending and the handling of the racial conflicts. Los Angeles Mirror-News wrote that the film "soon bogs down in a standardized Hollywood plot of racial issues and the old triangle." Time complained that "the grand drama of humanity's survival collapses into an irrelevant wrangle about racial discrimination that has no...real significance." Saturday Review (of Literature) wondered, concerning the ending, "Are we to assume that some sort of polygamous arrangement has been worked out, or will the three henceforth lead entirely sexless lives, thus dooming both white and colored races to extinction? No answer being given, we must assume that the color question was injected into the story more as a gimmick than out of any real seriousness."