Director Philip Dunne was better known as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, responsible for scripting How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), but he had been a successful director in his own right since making Prince of Players in 1955. He had attempted to option the novel for himself but lost out to Mark Robson, then gladly accepted the assignment when Robson decided to produce the picture and offered the director's chair to Dunne.
Irish-born leading Stephen Boyd, who had rocketed to fame after playing Messala opposite Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959), was cast as Inspector Peter Jongman. American actress Dolores Hart had made her film debut opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You (1957) and her Broadway debut a couple of years later in The Pleasure of Your Company, where she earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress. The supporting cast features the cream of the crop of Britain's character actors: Leo McKern (as the flinty barge Captain), Hugh Griffith (a craggy Dutch smuggler in Morocco), Donald Pleasence (Jongman's sympathetic partner), Harry Andrews, Robert Stephens, Marius Goring, and Finlay Currie.
To prepare for the role of a concentration camp survivor, Hart met with a real life Auschwitz survivor, a Hungarian immigrant in Los Angeles named Suzanne Zada, who recalled her meeting with the actress: "Dolores rose and said 'I think you should slap my face.' I stood stunned as she explained, 'I don't know why we thought we could ask you to relive your suffering just so we can make a movie. I apologize.' I was totally overwhelmed by the fact that she should be that sensitive, but when she said that, I suddenly knew that I wanted to share with her because I knew my help would allow this sensitive woman to get it right." Hart's recollection is just as powerful: "At that moment, the film became a personal crusade. I wanted to be able to show Suzanne I really did understand how deeply she was hurt."
Robson arranged for the production to be shot on location in Holland and other European locations, with studio scenes shot in MGM's British studio located outside of London. It was a "happy assignment," Dunne recalled in his autobiography, though not without challenges. Much of the film was shot on barges in the Dutch canals or on boats at sea. Hart and Boyd were constantly queasy while shooting on the water and Dunne refused them seasickness pills, afraid the side effects would affect their performances. The production shot the scenes of the coast of Palestine in Swansea, Wales rather than travel to Israel, and the company had to wait out two weeks of storms that grew so fierce that the British authorities had to close the ports. Hart called Swansea "the sinkhole of Great Britain" and recalled that one storm was so bad that the camera boat was washed away.
"It wasn't the acting of the role that affected me so deeply," recalled Hart in her memoir. "It was the humanity of it, the undeniable sense of life I found in the character. I felt more motivated to visit Regina Landis after Lisa was over." It turned out to be one of the final films that Miss Hart made before she gave up show business to enter the Benedictine Regina Laudis Monastery in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She is now Reverend Mother Dolores Hart, prioress of the abbey and the only nun who is an active voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
By Sean Axmaker
Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, Philip Dunne. McGraw-Hill, 1980.
The Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, Mother Dolores Hart. O.S.B. and Richard DeNeut. Ignatius Press, 2013.