"I didn't think some 60 years later that someone would be calling me up from Abu Dhabi to talk with me about it," says Penny Pietre, 75, when I ask her if she knew how important Lawrence of Arabia would be to cinema. Pietre had worked behind the scenes as a secretary on the epic movie's production.
The film, based on British lieutenant T E Lawrence's experiences in the Middle East during the First World War, is now widely considered a masterpiece that still influences moviemakers today. It continues to be studied in schoolrooms and on media courses. Back then, however, it was just a normal day at work for Pietre.
An epic journey
How I came to contact the retired teacher and discover her treasure trove of knowledge from working on the set is in itself an epic journey. This was originally supposed to be a story about one of the actors, John Dimech, who played a servant called Daud. I was inspired to contact Dimech, one of the few actors from that production who is still alive, after watching the film again when it aired on Turner Classic Movies recently. But it turned out he is a hard man to track down.
Many film buffs may quickly recall Dimech’s character received a few laughs, thanks to his mischievous behaviour in the desert, as Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) attempted to take Prince Faisal’s (Alec Guinness) army to conquer Aqaba. Daud, however, is perhaps best remembered for having the unfortunate onus of taking a fatal fall into quicksand, from which Lawrence was unable to rescue him.
It’s a striking scene, and some might argue one of the most dramatic in 1960s cinema. It’s also noteworthy because it’s the last time most audiences would ever see Dimech on the big screen.
"That was the worst memory of his life," says Pietre, who was friends with Dimech during filming. "He always told me: 'If you ever find me another part in a film, don't make me drown in quicksand,'" she recalls as we talk over the phone, me in Abu Dhabi while she's in Arizona.
Who is John Dimech?
Dimech, who is originally from Malta, did manage a few minor roles after Lawrence of Arabia, but nothing that would help make him a mainstay in cinema. "He was unhappy about that, but he went into a whole different career anyway." Pietre says he ended up becoming a waiter, something he did before he starred in the film.
“John was a lot of fun and completely crazy,” she remembers. In particular, Pietre recalls one night when he decided to play music from his record player in his tent. “He was dancing around the main tent pole and caused the entire tent to collapse around him.” Most of the cast members lived in tents, she explains, with the exception of Peter O’Toole and a few others. They would all spend most of their spare time together at the beach, while the movie was being shot in Jordan, Morocco and even Spain. “I just remember Dimech being a lot of fun and talking about Malta all the time. That was his whole experience before he was plucked from nowhere to play Daud.”
A few years ago, while selling some of her notes and other memorabilia from Lawrence of Arabia, Pietre tried to reconnect with Dimech. Finding him, however, proved as difficult for her as it has for us. As somewhat of a last attempt, Pietre composed a letter to the Times of Malta newspaper. "It would be fun to speak to him as we are probably among the last living veterans of the filming," she wrote. Sure enough, Dimech was made aware of the letter through a relative, and the two met in London several years ago.
“He kept telling me how wonderful it was to think about that time and what an amazing time it was,” she says. Staying in touch was tough, however, and now Pietre has not heard from Dimech in a few years. “Later on when we spoke he seemed a bit disappointed … that his acting career hadn’t taken off.”
A fruitless search
There was a point while I was researching this story that I thought I’d actually managed to track Dimech down. I’d discovered what I thought was his email address, so I wrote him a message. Sadly, I received the following statement in return: “I have been asked this question many times and unfortunately I am not that John Dimech! I have never been able to contact him but if I ever do I shall forward your email to him.”
After chasing countless potential leads and making numerous phone calls, it seemed my own efforts to reach Dimech would remain unsuccessful. Yet, it was through that lack of success that I found Pietre's letter to the Times of Malta, and eventually ended up discovering how she had come to work on one of the most important films ever made.
Where did Penny Pietre come from?
"My father was in the foreign service," she explains, adding that at the time she was living in Amman. "I was sitting at the Philadelphia Hotel having a cocktail with a girlfriend and these two Englishmen walked over and asked if we could type." Pietre said "yes", and soon she found herself as one of the only secretaries on the film's production. Indeed, rare photos provided by Pietre show her hard at work on the typewriter and enjoying her time behind the scenes.
“We lived together, all of us, for a year, so everybody knew everybody very well,” she adds. “Peter O’Toole had a caravan trailer … Anthony Quinn had the carpenters build him a deck on his tent, but there were no five-star hotels for anybody. It was pretty amazing.”
It could be pretty gruelling for the actors, she admits. In particular, a few tricky camel-riding scenes starring O'Toole and Dimech proved unpopular. "Every camel had a name and was rated for tameness so they would know which ones could be ridden by the stars." O'Toole has previously told NPR that he used sponges to help provide cushion from the camels, although Pietre remembers them wearing "diapers to prevent chafed rear ends".
While filming in the desert could be difficult at times, Pietre said the cast still found plenty of ways to have fun. In one photo she sent me, cast and crew members can be seen attempting to use a hastily constructed raft. A small raised flag is emblazoned with the word "Akaba". "It sank 10 feet offshore," she recalls. "It provoked general hilarity among the onlookers." The man pointing proudly at their creation is Eddie Fowlie, who would later go on to become known as a jack-of-all-trades for location scouting and special effects in movie production, working on many major films for various big-name directors, including The Three Musketeers and The Prince and the Pauper.
Pietre was particularly close to O'Toole, who at the time had only worked on a few smaller films, TV shows and theatre productions before joining the cast of Lawrence of Arabia. She says he couldn't have been nicer. "He was my best friend. We just clicked and talked for hours. He even played me the guitar."
Pietre also remembers Omar Sharif, who was new to the western cinema landscape back then. “He had been an Egyptian star but had never been in a big Hollywood movie.”
As for Guinness, he and Pietre bonded over horse-riding. “I used to ride horses with him often. He was being taught how to ride and I liked riding a lot so I was right there with him.”
A return to normal life
Although it’s difficult for her to imagine today, Pietre says she wasn’t overwhelmed by the fact that she was rubbing elbows with Hollywood A-listers. “That’s how a teenager’s mind works,” she says. “It really was an amazing experience in hindsight, but it all seemed so normal back then.”
After production wrapped, Pietre says she knew it had been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She quickly left the movie business to take classes in France, eventually finishing her graduate studies at Ohio State University. She later went on to teach at a language school in Paris, before moving back to America to settle down.
Interestingly, it was a long time before she actually watched Lawrence of Arabia. "Believe it or not I couldn't watch the film for 50 years," she says. "I just knew those guys too well." But, when she finally did watch it, she was blown away by the impressive craftsmanship and acting. "It's still one of the best movies."
Sadly, Guinness, Quinn, O’Toole and Sharif are all dead now. The same goes for many of the seasoned off-screen talents such as director David Lean, producer Sam Spiegel and soundtrack composer Maurice Jarre. “I watched them die one after the other in the newspapers,” Pietre says. “It was like watching a castle collapse.”
She and Dimech aren't the only ones who are still alive, however. There's also Michel de Carvalho, now in his mid-70s, who played another of Lawrence's servants in the movie, and occasionally speaks about the making of the film. De Carvalho left acting soon after, eventually earning his MBA at Harvard University, according to Fortune. He represented the British ski and luge teams during the Winter Olympic Games in 1968, 1972 and 1976, and has since had a very successful career in finance, serving as an executive director at Heineken while also chairing a private investment firm.
During a brief phone call, de Carvalho politely declined my request for an interview, noting that he rarely speaks about his past acting endeavours. He did, however, allow me to briefly ask about Dimech, although he said he’d lost track of him after shooting finished.
It seemed my mission to hunt down Dimech kept coming up against dead ends. Yet while the rest of his story may still be elusive, his place in movie history remains secure. For Pietre, meeting Dimech is just one of countless memories of Lawrence of Arabia that will last a lifetime. "It really was a magical time."