In 1990, filmmaker Peter Brosnan set out to find a legendary Egyptian city that was lost to time and buried under sand dunes. After years of battling local officials, he finally was given the approval to begin an archeological dig.
What he found were 35-foot tall statues of the Pharoah Ramses II and enormous sphinxes weighing over 5 tons.
Where did they make this discovery? In Santa Barbara County just north of Los Angeles.
Learn more about the lost Egyptian city of Cecil B. DeMille on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This story begins with the Hollywood film director and producer Cecil B. DeMille. He was one of, if not the biggest, names in Hollywood during the age of silent movies.
He began his career making smaller movies which were mostly melodramas and personal stories. However, later in his career, he shifted toward larger-scale epic films which became his signature style.
DeMille’s films were incredibly successful financially and he is considered the father of the modern motion picture industry. He had five films which were the highest-grossing films in the year they were released, a record only broken by Steven Speilberg.
The critics weren’t fond of DeMille, but the audiences loved his films, and in the end, that is all that really mattered.
In 1923 he was at the height of his success and he was looking for his next film. He had created a public contest where people could submit ideas The winning idea for the film came from one F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan.
Their proposal began with the following sentence: “You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you.”
DeMille took up the challenge and decided to make a film about the Ten Commandments.
To be clear, we are talking about the 1923 silent version of the Ten Commandments which was directed by Cecil B. Demille, not the 1956 color talking remake of the Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. Demille, starring Charlton Heston.
The film he envisioned would be in two parts. The first part would be the biblical story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the second part would be a modern story with four characters who all have different views on the Ten Commandments.
The second part of the movie would be relatively easy to produce. The first half of the film, however, was to be one of the most ambitious film productions in history.
In particular, the big scene was to the that of the exodus of the Israelites leaving Egypt.
To film this, the first needed a location that looked like Egypt….or at least looked like what everyone thought looked like Egypt. DeMille selected the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes which is located in Santa Barbara County, which is about a 166-mile drive from Los Angeles.
This was to be the largest film set ever constructed at the time. A crew of over 1,600 people and 1,300 animals were put to work building the massive set. It became known as “The City of the Pharaoh.”
The focus of the set was a massive 110 foot high, 800-foot long gate that the leaving Israelites would be walking through. There were also four, 35 foot high statues of the Pharoah Ramses II, and 21 statues of sphinxes.
However, this was a film set and not an actual Egyptian city. It wasn’t built out of stone, but rather it was mostly made out of plaster and wood. It only needed to exist for the few weeks in which filming would take place.
The scenes shot in the Guadalupe Dunes were really impressive. Much of it was shot in Technicolor-2, and the firm was the first major Hollywood film to use this color technique.
There were 2,500 actors who were brought up to appear as extras in the film. They were housed in a tent city on the dunes for two months. There wasn’t such a thing as CGI back then, so if you wanted to film thousands of people fleeing, you needed that many people.
He told his actors, “Your skin will be cooked raw. You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history. I expect of you your supreme efforts.”
The filming took place between May 21, and August 16, 1923.
The film was quite successful. It had a box office of $2.5 million, which was the second highest-grossing film of the year. Critics loved the first part of the movie which showed ancient Egypt but didn’t care for the second part so much. However, they thought the first part was so good that it was worth the price of admission.
At the end of filming, they had gone over budget, so didn’t have anything left for the demolition of the set. DeMille had spent $1.4 million on the production making it the most expensive movie ever made at that point.
A legend held that DeMille didn’t want anyone else to use the set, so he blew it up with dynamite and bulldozed it under the dunes.
However, the reality was that the set was simply abandoned.
The truth was hinted at in DeMille’s biography when he wrote: “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…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”
After the set was abandoned, it was simply forgotten. Over the years, the plaster set began to quickly fall apart, and it was quickly covered by the moving dunes.
However, it wasn’t totally forgotten.
Stories about the lost film set in the dunes had always floated around.
In the early 1980s, sixty years after the film was shot, a documentary filmmaker named Peter Brosnan decided he wanted to find the film set.
However, it wasn’t as easy as just going and digging in the sand. He needed to get permission to search, which proved to very difficult. He needed a permit to conduct an archeological dig, as well as an environmental audit.
He joined with archeologist John Parker, and in 1990 they finally got approval to search the dunes with ground-penetrating radar. What they found, was that the set was still beneath the sand.
Even after the radar showed that the set was still there, Brosnan still faced problems with getting permits and funding.
The western snowy plover nests in the area which caused problems getting digging permits. If he wasn’t having problems with permits, he was having problems with funding.
Many people from all walks of life offered assistance but getting people to actually commit proved difficult.
Eventually, in the mid-90s, he gave up the idea of doing the excavation because he couldn’t raise the necessary $175,000.
For 15 years, nothing happened. Occasionally TV stations or newspapers would contact him and ask about the film set under the dunes, but there wasn’t sufficient interest to actually conduct a proper archeological dig.
However, after another interview in the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous donor came forward who offered to fund the project.
In 2012, they were finally able to start digging and found the remains of one of the sphinx statues. It wasn’t in great shape, but they were able to recover the head of the sphinx which is now on display at a local museum in the town of Guadalupe.
The rest of the set is still down there and thankfully, the sand that covers it does a good job of keeping it preserved and removing moisture.
There are efforts to raise money to excavate more of the set, but that will have to wait on funding.
It might seem odd doing an archeological dig on something which is less than 100 years old, but this is actually the oldest film set that still exists. Film sets were never designed to be permanent so it is actually a really important part of history. Films have become an enormous part of our culture, and this film set buried in the sands is one of our only links to early film history.
You can actually see the technicolor version of the 1923 Ten Commandments on YouTube. Make sure you view the color version, not just the black and white version, to get an idea of what the original audiences saw. The film entered the public domain in 2019, so the YouTube version is totally legit.
Peter Brosnan finally released his documentary. It is called the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” and it can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.