Friday, March 19th, 2010
In 1923 filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille built an insanely huge faux Egypt set for his epic silent film The Ten Commandments on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach in California. The location was well-used by early Hollywood for desert scenes — Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik had been filmed there two years before — but the set DeMille built was an other scale altogether.
Under the direction of French artist Paul Iribe, a founder of the Art Deco movement, 1,600 craftsmen built a temple 800 feet wide and 120 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II. Twenty-one giant plaster sphinxes lined a path to the temple’s gates. A tent city sprung up to house some of the 2,500 actors and 3,000 animals used to tell the story of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.
Once shooting was over, DeMille found the set was too huge and complicated to take with him and way too valuable to leave standing for squatter films to use, so he had it dynamited and bulldozed into a 300-foot trench.
DeMille mentioned it in his biography.
“If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” DeMille wrote, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization . . . extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.”
In 1982, NYU film school graduate Peter Brosnan heard about the lost Egypt of DeMille and decided to go look for it. And make a documentary about the search, of course.
He hit the archives, tracked down surviving extras from The Ten Commandments, and the next year, one of those extras pointed out a dune that didn’t shift in the wind. They found many pieces of statuary, and even a 6-foot-wide bas-relief of a horse head.
The discovery made the news for a while, garnered all kinds of enthusiasm both for excavating this iconic piece of Hollywood history and for the documentary about it. Brosnan need $175,000 to do a proper archaeological dig and the proffered enthusiasm never converted into funding.
He never gave up, though, and now, 27 years after he started, he thinks he may just have scared up the grant money to finish the documentary. It’s not just about the DeMille history, but also about the location and town of Guadalupe which has a golden age or two of cinematic history under its belt.
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, which has several rescued pieces of the set on display, says (hopes?) the documentary will be released this summer, but Brosnan is still negotiating with Paramount for use of footage from The Ten Commandments, so that date is not firm.