It happened nearly 100 years ago. It could only be a Hollywood fable that happened to be true.
In 1982 a friend of young independent film maker, Peter Brosnan pointed out to him an enigmatic paragraph in the autobiography of director Cecil B. DeMille . It said,
“If 1000 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 civilisation extended all the way to the Pacific coast.”
Cecil B. DeMille had filmed his first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1923. The location shooting was done on the sand dunes near the small town of Guadalupe CA. The 22,000 acres of dunes provided an approximation of the Egyptian desert, with no roads or other signs of modern civilisation.
DeMille didn’t do anything on a small scale. He hired Paul Iribe ( who was called the father of Art Deco ) to design one of the last great sets of the silent era – a Great Wall, a dozen sphinxes, lions and 4 giant statues of the Pharaoh Ramses. Plus several hundred chariots.
Artifacts were made in Los Angeles and transported over 100 miles to the dunes.
A great tent city sprung up to house the thousands of actors and construction workers .
The Ten Commandments was the largest and most ambitious silent film ever made. Despite the enormous cost, it became the biggest box office success of the time. The parting of the Red Sea is still considered a triumph. Just look at the sizes of the Pharaoh’s statues. They look so real!
Construction of the great city wall gets under way. The stones are in place to take the sphinxes . One is already in place (top left). Hundreds of construction workers can be seen .
Showing the scale of the Sphinx heads. All plaster board and hollow.
The question Peter Brosnan asked himself was, where in the many miles of the dunes, was the filming done.Ground penetrating radar was used. An archaeologist came on board and they found remnants which were obviously from the set. Brosnan began a journey in 1982 that would take him until 2016 to finish his film documentary.
So what did happen to this extraordinarily expensive film site back in 1923. Well, I guess it was decided that it wasn’t worth while bringing anything back to Hollywood. I’ve read that DeMille was contracted to dismantle everything and leave the dunes as they were. It’s also said that if he had left the huge statues and great wall in place, other filmmakers would have been tempted to use them for other movies.
The decision was taken to dynamite and bulldoze everything into large trenches. Wind, rain and the sand likely buried a lot of it under the dunes. The buried film set lay undisturbed for 60 years until Peter Brosnan started his project.
Ironically, the minerals in the fine grain sand helped preserve the plaster of the statues.
Problems were always about funding and permits. The dunes were an environmental area and nobody was much interested in digging up what might remain of DeMille’s mighty sets. But Brosnan wouldn’t give up. His documentary has interviews from the 1980s with people who lived in Guadalupe in 1923, and with one of the film’s stars, Leatrice Joy. Also interviewed were DeMille’s granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley and his niece, Agnes DeMille. And Jesse Lasky Jr, whose father lost confidence on the ever expanding costs of the film and tried to close it down. (DeMille raised funding to continue).
Finally in 2010, a lady from Texas, Francesca Judge Silva, provide the funding necessary to do further research at the site and complete the documentary.
I saw the documentary at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival which executive producer Francesca Silva attended and answered questions after the screening.
Other artifacts found at the dig included bottles of ‘cough syrup’, (probably alcohol, as this was during prohibition.), and a canister which contained some color film. (Some scenes in the film were in color.)
Pride of place in the Dunes Center (www.dunescenter.org) in Guadalupe is a plaster head of one of the sphinxes. The center has raised money for more digs. The location is now an official State of California registered archaeological site. No artefact can be removed without permission. The body of a sphinx has been found and removed from the site. Hopefully, it will be on display too.
Not mentioned in the documentary is the fate of two of the giant sphinxes which wound up at the Santa Maria County Club in 1923. The picture above is from 1932. Sadly, they are gone now.
Peter Brosnan has said, “We don’t see this as a fake Egypt – we see it as real cinema history.”
This a great documentary and I hope it gets a dvd release. This is a fascinating piece of Hollywood history. The Washington Times called it “the stuff of Hollywood legends.”