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Unearthing the 'Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille': A filmmaker's decades-long journey to find 'Ten Commandments' site

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

When recent film-school graduate Peter Brosnan learned that the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic The Ten Commandments was buried in the sand dunes of central California, he thought his next documentary would be “a slam dunk.” He and his friends decided to hire an archaeologist, unearth DeMille’s life-size replica of an ancient Egyptian city, and interview locals who had worked on the silent film, creating a unique portrait of Hollywood’s formative years. This was in 1982. On Oct. 3, 2017, Brosnan’s long-gestating documentary, The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, will be released on digital and VOD. Why did it him take more than 30 years to make this film? That is half the story of the documentary, which is basically the movie that Brosnan originally envisioned, interwoven with three and a half decades of thwarted attempts to excavate DeMille’s giant sphinxes and Art Deco statuary from the sands of Guadalupe, Calif.

“By 1990, really, all of our work had been done on this,” Brosnan tells Yahoo Movies. “We had interviewed a lot of people who worked with DeMille; we had gotten the initial archaeological work done on the site; we recruited a fantastic archaeologist. And then, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the whole thing fell apart.”

The holdup was the dig itself, which required three things: a team of archaeologists, funding, and the permission of Santa Barbara County. As soon as Brosnan required one, it seemed, another would fall through. The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille chronicles the maddening number of times that the dig almost got underway, only to be sabotaged by some eleventh-hour piece of red tape. Over time, Brosnan’s original collaborators fell by the wayside, and the director moved on to a career in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, where he still works today. The footage he’d shot in the 1980s sat in a box in his garage “behind the Halloween decorations,” and might have remained there if not for one thing: the media.

“I think every time there was a slow news day somebody would think, ‘Hey, you know those crazy Californians digging up an old movie set? Let’s do a story on that!’” says Brosnan. Every time a news outlet ran a story about the faux-Egyptian ruins buried in California, a wave of interest would follow, and Brosnan would make yet another attempt at excavation, only to see everything fall through. It’s enough to make a viewer wonder: Was he ever tempted to sneak onto the dunes late at night and save these treasures before someone else got there first?

“There have, at times, been parties going out there and just digging willy-nilly, damaging a lot of stuff, stealing a lot of stuff,” Brosnan acknowledges. “We would not do that because we realized that archaeology really was necessary to do this properly. The statuary is very, very fragile, and once it’s removed from the sand, it needs to be properly treated and properly cared for; otherwise it’s going to turn to dust in a very short time.”

Fortunately for film lovers and historians alike, that law-abiding tenacity was rewarded. In 2014, a dig finally commenced. Archaeologists unearthed the head of a Ten Commandments sphinx, and Brosnan was there to capture the moment on film. That sphinx is now preserved at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center along with other artifacts from the site, including a makeup can and a “cough syrup” bottle (likely used to carry alcohol during Prohibition) left behind by the Ten Commandments cast and crew.

But the real treasures to be found in The Lost City of DeMille are the interviews. When they began the project, Brosnan and his original collaborators spoke with as many people as they could find who were around for the filming of the original Ten Commandments. Most were children at the time, who either acted as extras, accompanied their parents to work, or gawked from the sidelines. One particularly delightful story comes from a man who sneaked onto the set with his friends and tasted the Red Sea, which DeMille re-created using gelatin.

(Some more salacious bits of Hollywood lore didn’t make the cut. Brosnan shares a blind-item story about a drunk studio executive being fished out of the pool by stars at a raucous cast party — quite a contrast to the biblical spirit of the film.) As the years went on, Brosnan was approached by people who worked on DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, so he filmed their recollections too. The result is a vital snapshot of the film industry’s extravagant and experimental beginnings, as well as a timely reminder that Hollywood has always loved remaking its own greatest hits.

As for the set buried in the dunes, there’s still more to uncover; DeMille’s film featured 20 sphinxes, each weighing 4 tons, along with towering statues of pharaohs and 100-foot bas reliefs of horse-drawn chariots. Since the completion of Brosnan’s film, archaeologists have recovered the entire body of one sphinx, which is in the restoration process, and have plans for future digs. While it’s a little heartbreaking to watch The Lost City of DeMille and see just how much damage the relics sustained between the 1980s and today, Brosnan says he doesn’t dwell on that. “It’s sad that so much has been lost,” says the director, “but there is still enough there, I think, to fill several museums.”

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