A Piece of Cinematic History Lies Buried Along California's Central Coast
Along California’s Central Coast sits a piece of cinematic history that was once quite literally lost in the sands of time.
In 1923, famously eccentric movie director Cecil B. DeMille began filming one of his most ambitious works, the silent film The Ten Commandments. The theatrical blockbuster chronicled the Biblical story of Moses, along with other tales inspired by the Old Testament. However, the movie’s true drama lay not in its plot, but in its production, writes David Ferry for Outside.
Computer-generated effects obviously didn’t exist, so DeMille erected a giant Pharaonic film set in the middle of a stretch of desert 150 miles north of Los Angeles (DeMille's partial remake of The Ten Commandments, the 1956 version starring Charlton Heston, was filmed on location in Egypt and around Mount Sinai). The stupendous fake city featured an 800-foot-long Egyptian temple, a series of five-ton sphinxes, four 35-foot-tall statues of Ramses II, and a majestic gated wall. It was one of the largest and most expensive movie sets in history. Soon, it became known as one of the most cursed.
The project ended up costing DeMille so much money that he ran his crew ragged, racing against time to wrap up filming so he could cut production expenses. DeMille finished the movie in three weeks, but one large problem still remained: the set. According to an agreement struck with the land’s owners, DeMille was to raze the Egyptian temple before he left. He could go back on the deal, but there was always the chance that other directors might use the fake city to stage their own copycat films, piggybacking on DeMille's vision.
DeMille chose the cheapest—and most effective—way to knock the city to the ground: dynamite. Bulldozers dumped sand over the temple’s crumbled remains, where they lay undiscovered for 60 years until a filmmaker named Peter Brosnan came looking for them.
As a film student, Brosnan had heard urban myths about the buried city, and years later he wanted to find it and film a documentary. He met a local rancher who helped him locate pieces of plaster of Paris poking out from underneath a large sand dune—undeniable remains of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments.
Archaeologists and cinephiles rallied around Brosnan to help him produce his documentary project called The Lost City. Obstacles delayed the film's progression, however, and thanks to a lack of funds and environmental restrictions, excavation was delayed. Eventually, Brosnan ran out of money and had to cease digging.
After years of inactivity, Brosnan's project gained new life after an anonymous donor contributed money toward the excavation in 2010. In 2014, Brosnan was able to film a group of archaeologists as they uncovered a sphynx. Now, he’s working with past footage to complete a final draft of his film.
Brosnan hopes for the documentary to hit film festivals sometime in the near future. However, Outside reports that DeMille's lost city is becoming damaged as storms displace the mineral-rich sand that preserves the ruins. Time isn't on Brosnan's side, and, unfortunately, neither is money. Despite the recent influx of funds, he still doesn't have the resources to dig up the entire set.
Members of the public can’t visit the “City of the Pharaoh,” but original artifacts from the set are on display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and the NAPA Auto Parts store/museum in Guadalupe, California. There, the bleached relics pay homage to a visionary film director—and to a bygone Hollywood era in which set design provided almost as much spectacle as a movie itself.
Check out some footage of both the film's original set and its excavated remains above.
[h/t Outside, Smithsonian]