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SEARCH: Archeological Dig for Lost Movie Set : Solving Buried Riddle of a Hollywood Sphinx : Search for Lost Set From DeMille's 'Ten Commandments'

January 20, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

GUADALUPE, Calif. — On the restless, shifting, rolling beaches west of here, there's a sand hill of much mystique.

It's called the dune that never moves.

Sixty years ago, the whole town knew why wind and seasons were unable to resculpt the lounging landmark. Then interest dwindled and new generations were left to guess and invent their own reasons for the tenpenny nails and framing lumber and plaster chunks poking from surface sand.

Long Memories But now . . . reporters and researchers are telephoning the Far Western Tavern (circa 1912) in search of Guadalupe's elders . . . Clarence Minetti, Ernest Righetti, Joe Gray, anyone with long memories of this Latino-Italian-Swiss-Filipino-Chinese colony 170 miles north of Los Angeles.

Photographers are visiting. Strangers have hit the beaches to poke through sand and against solids. And international archeologists say they are ready to dig into the dune that never moves . . . the long, tall barrow where a legend, Cecil B. DeMille, built and then buried a 1923 masterpiece, the massive Pharaonic city that was his set for "The Ten Commandments."

Today, the sandy surface shows not-so-ancient Egypt as a deep layer of junk. Six decades of wind, rain, salt, sun, horses, boondockers and dune buggies have trashed once identifiable shapes into shards. That red plaster over there could be a piece from the walls of DeMille's City of Karnak, four millenniums and 10,000 miles removed from traces of the original. The blotch of fiberboard might be from a dummy pyramid.

Yet beneath this litter, enthuses a three-man team that represents the birth of Hollywood-Egyptology as a serious science, there should be artifacts of literally epic proportions.

More than a dozen concrete Sphinxes (four tons apiece) are believed to be awaiting recovery from the sand . . . and that is exactly how man rediscovered their aging parent, the 4,500-year-old Great Sphinx of Giza.

Four statues of Ramses the Magnificent (magnificence indeed at 35 feet and 39 tons and copied from originals at Abu Simbel) that once flanked the gates of the faked city . . . A 70-foot-high bas-relief of two archers, their chariots and horses . . . Generic pyramids and outbuildings, pillars, pediments, plinths and whatever else historic studio stills show of walls and gates formed from 500,000 feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails and 75 miles of bracing wire (so that winds wouldn't blow this plaster sail north) await exhumation.

Sandy Horses So much pie in the sand? Not quite. Eighteen months ago, Peter Brosnan of Hollywood, the 32-year-old creator and captain of this exploration, made a preliminary dig into the dunes. His whisk broom cleared a sandy shroud from the huge head of a plaster horse.

No doubt about it. Still photos confirmed it. The head, quite intact, was from one of those two bas-relief chariot horses raised on the walls of DeMilleville.

"That particularly bitter winter of 1982 uncovered much," recalled Brosnan, a maker of some well-accepted documentaries. He's antsy to add to those credits with a PBS film about DeMille and the Lost City dig. "Large pieces of plaster, lots of pieces of statuary sticking out of the sand, an awful lot of wood and concrete . . . enough that we could work out the lines of the set, confirm it was 800 feet wide, where the walls had been, the gates and bits and pieces of black plaster from what we suspect were the bottom halves of the Ramses statues.

"That and the horse's head were the giveaways. The (bases of the) Ramses statues were where they always had been. The horse's head was exactly where it would have been if the gates (walls) had been chopped off and collapsed backward . . . on top of everything that had been dismantled and piled there . . . including, we believe from certain things we've found sticking in the sand, the 14 Sphinxes."

In terms of intrinsic worth, Brosnan's scraps of plaster and lumber wouldn't make the bargain bin at Builder's Emporium. What redeeming social value could there be in an august archeological excavation of a Hollywood reproduction of how Egypt probably never looked? To say nothing of the project's odd attachment of venerability to something much younger than the Bradbury Building.

Even DeMille saw the whimsy inherent to any salvage operation.

As his autobiography noted: "If 1,000 years from now archeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of the Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the Valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.

"The Sphinxes they will find were buried there when we had finished with them and dismantled our huge set of the gates of Pharaoh's city."

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