Group Seeks To Save 1923 Film Set From Sand

Associated Press, Nov. 10, 1999.

GUADALUPE, Calif. -- Archaeologists, historians and film buffs are trying to save pharaohs and sphinxes in an ancient Egyptian city buried in the sand.

The California sand, that is.

Under the wind-whipped sand dunes along a remote stretch of California's central coast rests the elaborately detailed set from Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent movie The Ten Commandments -- a version that predated the remake with Charlton Heston by 36 years.

Storms are steadily dissolving the plaster-and-clay set, which was dumped into trenches and buried by an over-budget film crew 76 years ago.

Peter Brosnan, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, and his colleagues are trying to raise $180,000 to excavate the lost city and preserve it. He launched the project after learning that DeMille hinted in his autobiography that he buried the film set along the coast.

"It's a rich time capsule of the motion picture industry at that time," Brosnan said. "We don't see this as a fake Egypt. We see this as real cinema history."

Tiptoeing around mangled blocks of plaster and weathered wood this week, archaeologist John Parker stumbled upon a pharaoh's foot.

The block of statue had the consistency of blue cheese and would crumble if touched, Parker said. Archaeologists must first treat each piece with a solidifying preservative before pulling it out of the ground.

"Every year new stuff is exposed," Parker said. "And once pieces get exposed, they get sandblasted out of existence."

Parker joked that the job will make him the foremost (and only) authority of movie archaeology. "It's not the age of a site that's important; it's the information it contains," he said.

The only thing keeping Parker and his team from digging is money. So far, about $25,000 has been raised, Brosnan said. He said Hollywood has been approached about the project but has yet to contribute any money.

The land is owned by the Nature Conservancy, which Brosnan said has endorsed the idea of excavating the lost city near Guadelupe, a small agricultural community about 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

DeMille's epic film, produced by Paramount Pictures and starring Richard Dix and Nita Naldi, was considered the Titanic of its time with a $1.4 million budget -- about four times the typical film budget of the era.

It tells the story of Moses' efforts to save the Israelites from the tyrannical Ramses II, and then contrasts that story with a modern-day tale of two brothers, one a good man and the other a sinner.

The set had an Avenue of the Sphinxes, with 10 five-ton statues lining each side. There were also four pharaoh statues, each three stories high. The city was protected by an 80-foot-wide, 120-foot-tall wall covered with hieroglyphics modeled on those found a year earlier in King Tut's Tomb.

"The detail is amazing," Parker said.

When filming was complete, the crew threw ropes over the statues and dragged them down with horses. Then they pushed them over the wall and covered the site with sand.

Over the last 10 years, Parker and Brosnan have collected dozens of artifacts from the dunes: coins, pieces of costumes, even a bottle of Quality & Purity cough medicine, which was popular in Prohibition for its high alcohol content.

Ground-penetrating radar has located about 23 large pieces that Parker believes are intact enough to reassemble.


DeMille's Lost City
Brosnan's group's Web site on their search for the city. It hasn't been updated in a while, but is still of interest.

The Fight to Preserve DeMille's "Lost City"
An interview with Brosnan on NPR. A 4 minute interview; requires Real Media or Windows Media.

DeMille's Lost City and The Ten Commandments
A review of the film and a brief article on Brosnan; from the Seattle International Film Festival site.

Cecil B. Demille's Ten Commandments Set Lay Buried for 68 Years, but a Filmmaker Says He Can Dig It
An old article from People magazine.

A sanctuary out of the exodus
Another article on the film and the recovery effort, from All About Jewish Theatre.

Snapshots of the Past, by Brian M. Fagan
In his book, Fagan devotes a chapter to "Digging up DeMille." The site is a Google books preview, but you can largely read the chapter online (starts on page 154).

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