If 1,000 years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.”
— “The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille,” 1959
For 90 years, the shifting sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes have concealed a secret: the remains of a massive movie set and tent city constructed for one of Hollywood’s most influential filmmakers.
Part of an 18-mile stretch of California’s Central Coast, the site just south of the border between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties served as a key location in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film “The Ten Commandments.” But as memories of the production faded, DeMille’s plaster-and-concrete metropolis vanished.
“DeMille buried a virtual cinema museum in the Guadalupe Dunes, and we’ve just begun mining that treasure,” said Los Angeles filmmaker Peter Brosnan, whose upcoming documentary, tentatively titled “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” details his decades-long quest to locate and excavate the remains of the “Ten Commandments” set.
“There’s definitely an intrigue about those buried artifacts,” said Doug Jenzen, Dunes Center executive director.
Renowned for its enormous cast, monumental sets and groundbreaking special effects, “The Ten Commandments” pairs the Biblical story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land with the modern-day tale of two brothers vying for the same woman.
“For this project, DeMille needed the desert and he needed the Red Sea,” Brosnan said, but filming in the Middle East was deemed too expensive. “Guadalupe offered everything he needed visually.”
Famous Players-Lasky Corp., now Paramount Pictures, approved a production budget of $750,000 — a substantial sum rivaled only by the budget for 1923’s “The Covered Wagon” — and leased land from the now-defunct Union Sugar Company.
In May 1923, construction began on DeMille’s City of the Pharaohs. Roughly 1,500 workmen, most of them local, spent six weeks building an ancient Egyptian city designed by Paul Iribe, one of the founders of the Art Deco movement.
Four 35-foot-tall statues of Ramses II guarded a 110-foot gate, while 21 sphinxes, each weighing five tons, lined the avenue leading up to the entrance. “This was all before the age of computer-generated images. You wanted a big city, you had to build a big city,” Brosnan explained.
The tent city, constructed to house and feed more than 2,000 cast and crew members, was no less impressive. U.S. Army soldiers stationed at the now-closed Presidio of San Francisco handled logistics such as supplies and transportation.
According to Robert S. Birchard, past president of the preservation organization Hollywood Heritage Inc. and president of the Society for Cinephiles, poor weather and other factors pushed the production over budget and behind schedule, forcing DeMille seek help from Italian-American banker A.P. Giannini. The final price tag for the film, which premiered at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Dec. 4, 1923, was $1.4 million.
Fortunately, “The Ten Commandments” grossed more than $4 million, Birchard said, making it one of the most successful films of the silent era. Thanks to the movie, “There was a market again for large-scale roadshow productions that would run in a single theater for months on end,” he said.
DeMille would go on to make three more Biblical epics — 1927’s “The King of Kings,” 1932’s “The Sign of the Cross” and 1949’s “Samson and Delilah” — before revisiting the story of Moses in his final film, 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.” “(That story) certainly serves to almost bookend his career,” said Richard Adkins, Hollywood Heritage vice president and collections manager of the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
Brosnan first encountered the legend of “The Ten Commandments” in 1982 while living in Los Angeles with a fellow New York University graduate.
“One night — I seem to recall there was some beer involved — he told me this crazy story about Cecil B. DeMille burying sphinxes in the middle of California,” Brosnan recalled. “We thought, ‘What a great idea for a documentary film. We’ll find it, dig it up, film it, interview some of the people who worked on it.'”
He contacted the owners of Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe, who arranged for a friend to show him the site in June 1983. “There were acres of faux bas relief Egyptian statuary sticking up out of the sand,” Brosnan said, much of it uncovered by a stormy El Niño winter.
“And that was when I realized he buried more than sphinxes, he buried the whole set.”
So why did DeMille choose to bulldoze his set, rather than truck it back to Los Angeles?
“I think there were two things were going on,” Brosnan said, starting with DeMille’s pledge to leave the site as he’d found it. “Hauling away all that statuary would have been very expensive … so I think he pulled a fast one and buried it.”
In addition, he said, “(DeMille) knew that if he left it standing … the very next day somebody would be there filming a quickie on his set and they’d be on the streets with it in a few weeks. He was protecting his patent by taking it down.”
Either way, Brosnan was determined to unearth the filmmaker’s secrets. In 1990, he and archeologist John Parker led an archeological survey of the site using ground-penetrating radar.
“We expected to go back the following year” to dig, Brosnan recalled. By the time they sorted out permit issues with Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development Department, however, two years had passed and funding had dried up.
“The project died,” he said. “At that point, Parker and I pretty much gave up on it…. We went on with our lives.”
Over the next two decades, Brosnan earned his license in clinical psychology, married and started a family. But interest in “The Ten Commandments” refused to wane.
“What happened was something we hadn’t counted on: Reporters kept calling.This had become an evergreen story,” Brosnan said. In March 2010, a couple days after the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the project, he got a call from a woman in Austin, Texas, who offered to help fund the $175,000 excavation.
“One business day before we were going to start work (in September 2011), (Planning and Development) decided they made a mistake and they killed the project,” Brosnan said. “We had to start from scratch.”
In October 2012, Brosnan returned to the dunes with an archeological team from Applied EarthWorks, Inc., in San Luis Obispo. “To finally see things coming out of the sand … was great,” said the filmmaker, noting that most were in “very good shape.”
Once those artifacts are cleaned, dried and coated with a special casing that allows them to be exhibited under glass, they’ll take their place at the Dunes Center, one of the excavation’s longtime supporters. Already featured in the “Lost City of DeMille” exhibit are faux Egyptian coins, scraps of wooden furniture and pieces of plaster sphinxes, as well as cough syrup bottles, tobacco tins and photos taken on the set by ethnologist and photographer Edward S. Curtis.
The rest of the “Ten Commandments” movie set and tent city remains shielded from treasure hunters, vandals and the elements by a blanket of sand.
The still-buried artifacts also enjoy the protection of a threatened bird species, the western snowy plover. In addition to driftwood and seaweed, “They’ve decided that movie set artifacts also make a good home,” Jenzen said, which means the site is off-limits during nesting season, March through late September.
According to Brosnan, the “Ten Commandments” artifacts represent some of the rarest relics of the silent film era. “There’s almost nothing (left), and that’s part of the tragedy,” he said, noting that an estimated 90 percent of silent films are lost. “Imagine if we had lost half of everything Hemingway wrote. We would recognize it as a huge cultural loss. We have that cultural loss with our movie history.”
Now, at least, the legacy of “The Ten Commandments” will live on.