Desert Journey, Part One


In 1961 my uncle, John Alldridge spent some time on the set of Lawrence of Arabia and reported his experiences for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

Jerry F, Going Postal
John Alldridge in Arab headdress.
Newspaper article header, Birmingham Mail,
Unknown photographer
© 2024, reproduced with permission

Akaba, Jordan

I am writing this on the only verandah in the world that can boast a view over four countries.

From where I sit, 50 feet from the gently swelling, salt-heavy waters of the Gulf of Akaba, I can look half-right, across the barbed wire and minefields – to the bustling new town of Eilath, where Israel begins.

Or I can look left to the date palms and minarets of Akaba, which is Jordan’s back door.

Farther left still, hugging the mountains, is the little yellow police post that marks the boundary of Saudi Arabia. And dead ahead across the bay frowns Egypt.

An hour ago, before the broiling Red Sea sun drove me to shelter, I was floating on my back out there, watching my feet swing like a compass needle between those four wary neighbours. But bathing is discouraged at this time of year: the sea is swarming with Portuguese men o’ war, whose sting leaves a nasty raw wound.

This is an ancient land where history has bitten deep. Over there is Sinai. And I can see quite clearly the cleft in the mountains through which, they say, Moses led the Children of Israel at last out of the desert.

Along that coast road marched the Crusaders. Behind me — but out of sight — are King Solomon’s Mines. And dead ahead are the jagged peaks and deep gorges down which, in a driving sandstorm, Lawrence’s Arab legions rode, whistling and screaming, to take Akaba from the Turks.

And in a sense we are making history, too.

This sandy strip of beach, ringed by date palms and barbed wire, is the base camp of an expeditionary force which is fighting its own private war out in the desert 200 miles away.

But no army base camp was ever like this.

My tent has air-conditioning, mains electricity, and a refrigerator. I have a batman called Mohammed — a neat, quiet lad — who brings me morning tea in bed and takes my laundry into town by taxi.

There is a barbecue pit, an outdoor “movie,” a badminton court, flush toilets, piped-in music and hot and cold water on tap.

The kitchen is presided over by a famous West End chef (lunch yesterday included rainbow trout from Norway, Danish butter and fresh lettuce flown in from Egypt). When Hollywood goes to war it does it in style…

Normally this base camp on the beach — known unofficially as Camp Siegel — has accommodation for 100 men and eight women. Just now it is almost deserted and strangely quiet. The army has moved forward…

At night it reminds me sharply of a replacement camp on the way up to El Alamein (though the Eighth Army never had it so good).

In the bar, over their tax-free gin, newcomers, with the B.O.A.C. shine still on them, ask timidly what it’s like “Up There.” And old-timers just back from “the front” scratch their desert-cropped hair, spit into the sand, and tell tall tales that are quite unprintable.

“Up There” is Jebel Tubeiq, 250 miles due east on the Saudi Arabian border, a place so desolate that not even the Bedouins go near it. For the nearest water is 150 miles away.

Undisturbed since the seventh century, when monks abandoned a monastery they had established there in what must have been the world’s most remote retreat, Jebel Tubeiq is in the very heart of the “Lawrence of Arabia” country.

Until the arrival of Horizon Film 11 weeks ago, Lawrence was undoubtedly one of the few white men ever to have laid eyes on Tubeiq.

Other desert vastnesses which Lawrence knew will be filmed: El Jafre, where all roads end and only a few old camel trails push on into the hinterland of the east; El Quweira, where Lawrence fought his most decisive battle; and the lovely, incredibly lonely Wadi Araba, the principal valley between Ma’an and Akaba.

But Jebel Tubeiq is the key to the whole campaign. It means setting up a forward camp where every drop of water and every grain of food has to be trucked in over rails that did not exist until the first convoys of Land Rovers and Austin Gipsys literally bulldozed a way through.

To supply each member of the 75-man (and three women) troop with food, drink, living quarters, and tools during the first three months requires the equivalent of a fully loaded 13-ton truck.

Out there, shooting at an elevation of between 2,500 and 3,000 feet, camera crews may be faced at any minute by sudden sandstorms, heat mirage, and a complication of atmospheric conditions enough to drive a man crazy.

Daytime temperatures reach 115 deg. in the shade. At night there is stinging cold.

And the only communication between here and there is by morse-key operated by signallers of the Royal Jordanian Army.

There is a set of problems here that few film producers would dare face. To make a film out here at the wrong time of year and in country totally unfitted to Europeans seems, on the face of it, lunatic.

But then, “Lawrence of Arabia” is like no other film ever made.

For one thing it is the first motion picture to go before the cameras without a budget.

Columbia Pictures, who will distribute it, have given producer Sam Spiegel and his director, David Lean, what amounts to a blank cheque.

It is also the only film in my experience to go into production with its cast list still incomplete and its script only half-written. And this after a year of planning and preparation.

Just consider one single appalling problem of communications. Because the film is being shown in 65mm Panavision every foot of exposed film has to be flown from the desert air strip at Jebel Tubeiq 400 miles to Amman; and then on by the twice-weekly B.O.A.C. Comet to London.

There it is processed and flown back again.

For David Lean, waiting in the desert, it means a delay of from three to five days before he can know the result of a single day’s shooting.

At the moment the unit’s only aircraft — an eight-seater two-engined Dove — is grounded. This means that sensitive film stock must be jolted for ten hours by Land Rover in desert heat hot enough to fry an egg.

And at the moment some of the trucks are off the road, broken by the merciless desert. Before they can get going again mechanics will have to be flown out from England.

This is why I sit here on the beach, gently grilling in the sun, and waiting impatiently to hitch-hike a lift on a ration-truck going “Up Front.”

Meanwhile, of course, there are compensations. For instance there’s Filet Mignon and strawberries for dinner tonight.

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

Jerry F 2024