Dinner with Andre
More De Toth, you say? OK!
De Toth, among many other things, was second unit director on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (and Nicholas Roeg was his cameraman), during the later part of his career when he also produced BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN for Ken Russell and generally did things other than directing his own films. On LAWRENCE, most of his ideas were rejected (“Revolting!” Lean would say) but he was still very useful to the production.
When Sam Spiegel decided that Lean was never going to finish the film in Arabia and arranged to have the unit shifted to Almeria, Spain, it was decided that the production would have to buy some camels and import them. I think the figure was fifty camels, including ten silver racing camels.
(Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)
De Toth is presented with a problem. Several production personnel have visited the sheik, and arranged to buy these camels, but the deal never seems to go through — the camels don’t come. André is the muggins who must go and investigate.
The deal is agreed once again, over a banquet. Then, the sheep’s eyeballs are brought in. A rare delicacy. De Toth shrewdly realises the problem. All the previous production emissaries have refused to partake of this treat — a fatal insult to the sheik. To make sure the deal goes through, De Toth must chow down on ovine orb.
For a brief moment he imagines that the consumed eye will replace his own missing left eye. He pops the thing in his mouth. Not so bad. Yes it is. Worse! Unendurably repugnant. He swallows, the sheik is appeased, and De Toth will awaken gagging for many nights to come, re-experiencing the traumatic sweetmeat.
De Toth and the camels and their herders go to Spain.
One morning, he is awakened in his hotel suite by the smell of camel dung. The camel herders are standing round his bed. They have bad news. The camels have escaped. All of them. How has this happened? Nobody knows.
Imagining haveing to return to Arabia and eat another sheep eye, De Toth pulls out all the stops. Soon he has the Guardia Civil sifting the dunes for his fugitive ruminants. Partial success! All ten of the silver racing camels are recaptured, but only 37 of the regular ones.
Defeated, De Toth reports the camel shortfall to Lean’s trusted assistant, an indefatigable and resourceful woman. “Mr. Lean specifically asked for 50 camels and I only have 47.” She thinks. “We won’t tell him,” she decides.
Lean goes into battle with 47 camels and never notices the difference. Nobody thinks to count them.
As for the missing camels, De Toth reports that they were still living in the Spanish desert when he shot PLAY DIRTY there some years later, adding enormously to the conviction of his North African setting. “We could never have afforded them otherwise.”
Almeria in those days was such a popular location that film shoots would actually collide — De Toth’s armoured vehicles would break into the background of Edward Dmytryk’s western SHALAKO, while Dmytryk’s cowboys and Indians rampaged across De Toth’s WWII campaign.