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A New York Times news item of March 3, 1952 reported that director Fred Zinnemann was about to option the film rights for the best-seller The Young Lions, which he intended to produce and direct independently. The item also stated that Zinnemann had made overtures to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, with whom he had previously worked, to play two of the leading roles. However, on January 23, 1954, New York Times announced that producers Jacques Braunstein and Robert Lord had purchased the film rights for a sum in excess of $100,000. On January 25, 1954, Film Daily reported that Irwin Shaw was to receive a percentage of the profits and would write the screenplay. An September 11, 1955 New York Times news item indicated that Braunstein and Lord would produce Shaw's screenplay for United Artists release.
According to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, in December 1956, the studio acquired the rights to the novel from Braunstein for $50,000, plus 15% of the net profits. Additionally, Shaw was to receive $65,000 spread over ten years. The Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, contains a copy of Shaw's undated screenplay. All of the Twentieth Century-Fox drafts were written by Edward Anhalt. A September 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that Joanne Woodward was intially cast as "Hope Plowman," but left the production to appear in The Long Hot Summer. An early June 1957 Hollywood Reporter production chart that preceded the start of production places Tony Randall in the cast, but he does not appear in the released film. An early November 1957 Hollywood Reporter production chart adds Ken Scott, John Gabriel and Gil Lasky to the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Filming began in France and Germany in June 1957 on a budget of $2,625,700. According to a studio press release, the Struthof concentration camp near Strasbourg, which the French had preserved just as they found it, was used as a location. When the studio ran advertisements in Strasbourg newspapers for "200 very thin, emaciated men," it found that 28 of the applicants were former inmates of Struthof. The North African desert scenes were shot at Borrego Springs, CA, supplemented by footage from the 1943 British documentary Desert Victory. The final confrontation, the only scene including the three principals, was filmed near Mt. Wilson, CA. By the time filming was completed in late Oct, the cost had risen to $3,553,245. Two sequences paralleling that between "Christian" and "Margaret" on New Year's Eve 1938, were shot but deleted in editing: The sequence with "Michael" was set in a New York nightclub, while the sequence in which "Noah" watched the father he had neither known nor liked very much, die, took place in a cheap hotel in Santa Monica, CA. "Noah's" father was played by noted Jewish stage actor Jacob Ben-Ami, making what would have been his Hollywood debut at the urging of Montgomery Clift, an old friend and admirer.
When the film opened, a good deal of criticism was leveled at the change from novel to film in the Christian character. In Shaw's novel, he was a hard-core, unregenerate Nazi, but the film presents him as a misguided "idealist" who eventually realizes the evil of the cause to which he has dedicated himself. In a May 15, 1957 memo to the producer, director and screenwriter, executive producer Buddy Adler wrote, "We need one good strong German character to speak for the German people as a whole, and to cast the guilt on the Nazis as opposed to the entire German population. A good picture today can take a million dollars out of Germany, and I am sure that unless we do something as suggested in the foregoing, this picture will not be sympathetically received in Germany."
In a April 14, 1958 Life feature on the film, it was reported that Brando delivered a fifteen-hour lecture to Dmytryk, Lichtman and Anhalt in which he gave a detailed analysis of Christian Diestl's character to convince them to make changes. Dmytryk, in a March 17, 1978 interview, stated, "I never spent 15 hours with Marlon.... The writer, Anhalt, and I already had these ideas about the character, and explained them to Marlon." The changes in Diestl's character enraged Shaw, who, quoted in a biography of Shaw, said that Brando "played him in a sympathetic way because he wants to be sympathetic on screen." The issue of anti-Semitism, which loomed large in the novel, was diminished in the film. Adler, in the May 15, 1957 memo, in which he reacted to a draft in which the anti-Semitism was considerably less subtle, wrote, "I also recommend that in the scene in the barracks in which Noah is called 'Jew-boy,' the connotation here should not be that the bullies and the captain dislike Noah because he is a Jew, but because he is sensitive etc.... The bullies are angry with Noah not because he is Jewish, but because the whole company is being punished because Noah failed in his duty to keep the windows clean." Critics also complained about loose ends and structural problems in the screenplay. However, Dmytryk has stated that he considers the film to be one of the best he made.
Producer Al Lichtman, longtime executive producer at MGM and former head of distribution for Twentieth Century-Fox, returned from a retirement due to health problems to produce the film, but died before it opened. This was Dean Martin's first dramatic role; his character's surname in the novel is "Whitacre," but was changed to "Whiteacre" for the film. Studio records indicate that Peter Brocco appeared in a deleted sequence. The Call Bureau Cast Service lists Wade Cagle, Kendall Scott, Anne Stebbins and Ann Paige as cast members but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. The film received Academy Award nominations in the Cinematography (Black-and-White), Sound Recording, and Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) categories.