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Digging up a piece of Hollywood history

Cecil B. DeMille's massive movie set, built in 1923 for 'The Ten Commandments,' lies buried on California's Central Coast. One man's quest to unearth the lost city has lasted nearly 30 years.

March 18, 2010|By Mike Anton

Reporting from Guadalupe, Calif. — Strong winds scour the dunes, which hide a curious history. Nails and fragments of concrete are scattered everywhere. Steel cables, carved pieces of wood and slabs of painted plaster poke out of the ground, ghosts rising from the grave.

In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille came to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes on California's Central Coast and built a movie set that still captures the imagination -- a colossal Egyptian dreamscape for the silent movie version of "The Ten Commandments."

Under the direction of French artist Paul Iribe, a founder of the Art Deco movement, 1,600 craftsmen built a temple 800 feet wide and 120 feet tall flanked by four 40-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II. Twenty-one giant plaster sphinxes lined a path to the temple's gates. A tent city sprung up to house some of the 2,500 actors and 3,000 animals used to tell the story of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.

"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," DeMille told his army of actors. "I expect of you your supreme efforts."

When he was done, the set proved too expensive to haul away, but too valuable to leave intact for rival filmmakers to poach. DeMille had it bulldozed into a 300-foot-long trench and covered with sand.

Peter Brosnan was a 30-year-old New York University film school graduate when he first heard the story in 1982. Over beers one night, a former college roommate laid out the fantastic tale of DeMille's lost city.

"I thought my friend was nuts," Brosnan said.

Then his friend showed him DeMille's autobiography, in which the director seemed amused at the prospect that his city would be unearthed someday.

"If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe," DeMille wrote, "I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization . . . extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America."

Captivated, Brosnan embarked on a journey that has yet to end -- a quest to find DeMille's set, exhume it and produce a documentary about this unusual piece of Hollywood history.

The project would take him from film industry archives to the living rooms of aging ranchers who worked as extras on "Ten Commandments." He filmed their stories: How the "Hollywood boys" got thrown from unbroken horses; how a local 10-year-old with no acting experience played the pharaoh's son and was schooled by DeMille to put some mustard into his whipping of Moses; how the director ferried 240 elderly Jews from Los Angeles to witness the Exodus reenacted. The recent immigrants broke out into an impromptu dirge that stunned the crew.

Brosnan also collected stories from locals about the dozens of films shot outside Guadalupe from the silent era to the 1940s -- a time when the dunes were Hollywood's backlot for desert movies and ranch hands had fleeting encounters with Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.

Clarence Minetti, 92, is among the few still around with a connection to those days. He appeared in "The Last Outpost," a 1935 film starring Cary Grant. The dunes were colonial Iraq.

"We were British soldiers or something," Minetti said. "Paid $5 a day for me and my horse."

Minetti pointed Brosnan to one dune out of the hundreds that flow across miles of the spectacular nature preserve. It didn't shift in the wind. In fact, it never moved. One foggy morning in June 1983, Brosnan and two friends climbed Minetti's dune with brooms and a movie camera. Hours later they hit pay dirt: dozens of pieces of statuary, including a 6-foot-wide bas-relief of a horse head.

Brosnan and archaeologist John Parker developed a plan for the excavation. DeMille's estate offered encouragement. A Smithsonian Institution curator expressed interest in displaying pieces of the set. Charlton Heston, who played Moses in DeMille's far more famous 1956 remake, sent his best wishes.

"We were ecstatic," Brosnan said. "We were young, idealistic and thought: What a wonderful movie this is going to make! We thought certainly we could get some money from Hollywood and we'd be finished with this project in a year or two."

But in Hollywood, green lights are as ephemeral as a starlet's blown kisses. Despite years of effort, Brosnan could raise only a portion of the $175,000 needed for a full-blown archaeological dig.

Yet his passion for DeMille's lost city never waned. Now, after 27 years, Brosnan believes he's close to obtaining a grant that will allow him to use inexpensive editing software to fulfill part of his project -- a film showcasing his oral histories on Guadalupe's days as a stand-in for exotic locales.

"I didn't realize when I started this project that it was going to become an epic of its own," he said.

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