“I’ll kill that bloody driver!” The words echoed over the hills of the Negev Desert in 1954. “I swear, I’ll kill him!”
At the bottom of the hill, which is topped by the ancient Nabatian Avdat fortress, stood Thorold Dickenson, 6 foot 3 inches tall, white hair flowing wildly around his head, arms outstretched and flailing, looking very much like an irate Moses in the wilderness and shouting his curses toward a chaos that was happening in front of him.
Despite all the noise, the explosions, the trucks and jeeps rushing downhill, and the troops firing their guns, I could clearly hear Thorold’s voice screaming in my earphones — and he did not really use the word “bloody.”
We had arrived here in the middle of the Negev Desert just three days earlier and were in the second week of shooting the first real all-Israel motion picture production of “Hill 24 Does Not Answer,” a dramatization of events that took place during Israel’s War of Independence. During the first week of shooting, one of the few helicopters in Israel was damaged. The accident nearly cost some lives. Now, during the second week, things were not going too well either. For two days we had been filming scenes of Israeli forces as they attack, trying to dislodge Egyptian soldiers from the Avdat fortress. Now we were at a point where the Egyptians were abandoning their positions and were supposed to rush helter-skelter down the mountain and, as the audience was expected to assume, back to Egypt.
This involved major preparations. Dynamite charges had to be buried so that explosions could be fired at appropriate moments as the Egyptian soldiers ran out of the fortress and climbed onto their vehicles, and the two jeeps and the Egyptian Army truck charged down the hill. But there was just one problem.
Instead of rushing down the hill, the truck would roll slowly downhill till the clutch was engaged and the motor was started. Only then would it finally get moving, but much too late. The assistant directors climbed up the hill to the truck and painstakingly explained to the driver, who also was the owner of the truck, what he was supposed to do. Now, the second take of this scene was being shot, and once again the truck was ruining the scene and causing the director, Thorold Dickenson, to bring his fury down upon the poor driver.
The driver’s problem was simple. The battery on his truck had gone dead, and he did not want to waste his own precious gasoline keeping the truck idling while the lengthy preparations were taking place between takes. Only a promise to repay him for the wasted gasoline finally convinced the driver to follow the instructions, cooperate with the production and make the next take of the scene a success.
What does all this have to do with Mitzpe Ramon? In 1954, a very modest military installation was the nearest civilized place near Avdat, so that’s where the crew and equipment was housed.
Producing the first major film in Israel with a mostly Israeli crew, cast, and resources was truly a daunting project. The helicopter and truck incidents were just the first of a string of problems and challenges that had to be overcome. Today there is a sizable town, with hotels, a museum, restaurants, and industry at Mitzpe Ramon. In 1954 there was nothing more than a small fenced-in area about the size of a soccer field, with a half-dozen wooden military barracks. But there was water, an electric generator, and a chance for civilized living.
The male crew members were housed in two of these small barracks and the women in a third. There was a dining room/kitchen house and one shower room where the men and the women took turns cleaning up the day’s dust, dirt, and sweat. At the far side, along the fence, there were two outhouses. The arrangement made for tight living conditions and occasional frayed nerves — particularly about which gender had the first turn in the shower.
I was the recording engineer. I sat in the sound truck that supplied the power to the camera and the recorder. A bank of batteries that I had to recharge every evening would supply the power to a generator that, in turn, would run the camera motor and a Westrex 35 millimeter magnetic recorder inside the truck. Actually, it was somewhat of a miracle that the truck had gotten there at all.
Not only was I the recording engineer, I also was given the job of driving the truck. On a Thursday evening I suddenly learned that my American driver’s license did not qualify me to drive a truck in Israel and that I had to get an Israeli truck-driver’s license. Rather naively, I arrived at the licensing bureau on Friday morning and announced that I came to get my truck license.
“You must be kidding!” was what I understood the clerk to say in Hebrew when I told him what I wanted to do. “These things take three to four months at least.” “No, you don’t seem to understand,” I insisted. “I’ve got to be on location in the Negev on Sunday morning, or a whole film crew and a cast of hundreds will be sitting around with nothing to do.” “Look,” said the clerk, “this is Friday. We close at 1 o’clock, and there is no way that you can get a license to drive a truck in four hours.” I kept insisting, and I asked to talk to the head of the department. A half hour went by before I was finally ushered into an office to see a man who fortunately spoke enough English to understand what I was trying to do.
I pleaded my case forcefully to him. He seemed sympathetic, and at last I convinced him of the urgency of my request. He took me under his wing and processed me through the various steps I had to complete. In quick succession the application forms were filled out, I took the eye test, passed the physical examination, and took the written examination, which the director kindly translated for me. Each of these steps was taken in front of the startled faces of the clerks and the envious and outraged eyes of the poor other applicants, who were standing in long lines at each station waiting for their turn. “Where are your photographs?” the department head asked. “Photographs! God! I should have thought of that! What do we do now?”
It was almost 12 o’clock. Time was running out. I was getting desperate.
Fortunately, there was a photo store for just this purpose across the street. After a brief argument I convinced the owner to stay open past noon, and 15 minutes later I was rushing back with pictures in hand. “OK” said the director, “Now for the driving test.” “Driving test! Where do I get a truck?” I looked around bewildered. Things were looking dark.
I rushed out of the building just as a truck owned by a driving school was pulling out of the parking lot. I ran after him. “Please, please can I use your truck? I have to take a test,” I pleaded. The driver hesitated. “First you’ve got to take at least one lesson,” he insisted. “There is no time for that. I’ve got to take the test.” The driver insisted that at least I must show him that I knew what I was doing. So I hopped into the cab. The driver quickly explained the gears to me, and we were off on a quick spin around the block.
It was a good thing that I had this preliminary ride, because the gearbox apparently had been ruined by earlier learners and was very difficult to operate. It was 10 minutes before closing time when an examiner joined me in the truck to test my driving skills. As luck would have it, his daughter lived in Chicago, and when I told him some complimentary details about her new neighborhood, he saw no reason to make this examination too thorough.
Five minutes later I was back in the director’s office. I had passed the driving test. Ten minutes later, as the building was being locked up for the day, I walked out of the building with my brand new and hard won truck driver’s license in my pocket. As I was walking over to the bus station, the clerks, who were leaving the building and were gathered in the parking lot, applauded as I passed by.
I had apparently made history.
Ben Brightwell was one of four British crew members brought over to head up the film departments. Ben was the chief sound engineer and my boss on this project. The others were the chief cameraman, the script clerk and, of course, Thorold Dickenson, the director. Ben was not all that bright — a fact that he often would demonstrate. Here in the desert, after hearing that Arabs at times attacked Jewish settlers, he was extremely upset that we usually were the last ones to leave the location. We had to gather up all the cables we had run to the camera and to the microphones before we could leave. So, no matter how fast we moved, everyone was long gone before we were ready to leave. Night falls quickly in the desert, and we often traveled in the dark. “Stick your guns out the windows so people will see that we are armed,” Ben would insist as we departed for the half-hour drive back to Mitzpe Ramon.
The truck was hard enough to drive on the unpaved desert road. Now I had to do it with a gun butt clutched between my thighs. However, the chance of being attacked was a real possibility in 1954 and we had to be prepared. This is why the police in Beersheva insisted that anyone traveling south from the city had to have a rifle or a handgun.
Ben was not the only one who was concerned. Mildred Solomon, an American visitor in Israel who was acting as a secretary on the production, felt a certain kinship toward me, a fellow American. Unfortunately, this affinity caused her to feel free to wake me in the middle of the night so that I could escort her, rifle in hand, while she marched out to the fence line to use the outhouse. I would stand there on guard while she relieved herself and I would march her back to her quarters when she was done. I made it my business, after a few of these nightly sojourns, to remind Mildred not to drink too much water at dinner and to be sure to use the toilet before going to sleep.
After Mitzpe Ramon the crew went to Haifa, Naharia, Acco, and several other locations, but nothing was as memorable as the two weeks in Mitzpe Ramon.
Charles Ticho of Hackensack, a retired producer and film director, was born in what was then Czechoslovakia and has lived there and in Israel.