In A Nutshell
After completing filming of his biblical epic The Ten Commandments in 1923, Cecil B. DeMille buried the entire movie set in the California desert. The massive set, which included 21 plaster sphinxes, has remained buried there ever since. A documentary filmmaker has found the location and is trying to secure funding to uncover the entire set, but is keeping the exact location a secret to prevent looting and vandalism.
The Whole Bushel
Cecil B. DeMille was one of the biggest movie directors in the early days of Hollywood. He was known for his gigantic productions; he constructed massive movie sets and he had casts of thousands of people. He paved the road for directors of big-budget blockbusters like James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg. His most famous films are Cleopatra (1930) and The Ten Commandments (1953).
Another popular movie of DeMille’s was the earlier, silent version of The Ten Commandments which was produced in 1923. After getting the financing of $750,000 (a significant amount of money for the production of a silent film), DeMille hired 1,500 workers to build a City of the Pharaohs in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, which is on the central coast of California near San Luis Obispo, a few hours north of Los Angeles.
It took them six weeks to make the massive set. There was a temple that was 240 meters wide and 36 meters tall (800 ft by 120 ft). There were four 10.5-meter (35 ft) statues of Rameses II which stood in front of a 34-meter (110 ft) gate. Then there were the astonishing five-ton sphinx statues made from plaster, 21 in all, that lined the entrance into the city.
After shooting the film, a problem arose as to what to do about the set. It was too big and would cost too much to take the set down. They had already spent an exorbitant amount of money creating the set and they hadn’t released the film, so they had no idea if they were going to make any of their money back. The other problem was that they couldn’t just leave the huge set there. One major ploy of making a movie like The Ten Commandments was the sheer spectacle of seeing the City of Pharaoh alive on the screen. They couldn’t just leave their glorious work of art so anyone could swoop in, shoot a film, and release it before the studio released The Ten Commandments. It would be devastating to the movie.
In the end, DeMille bulldozed the set into a 90-meter (300 ft) trench and then covered it with sand.
Then the story was essentially forgotten. In film school classes, it was told as a legend. The story was crazy and many people thought it was just an urban legend from the grandfather of blockbusters. That is what 30-year-old New York film school graduate Peter Brosnan thought when a former roommate told him the story in 1982. Then the roommate showed him DeMille’s autobiography and confirmed he did have a giant movie set buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes.
Shortly afterward, Brosnan decided to make a documentary about trying to uncover the movie set. In June 1983, they were able to locate the set, with pieces of Neptunian art sticking up out of the sand. However, Brosnan needed to raise $175,000 for an archeological dig to uncover the entire set. He has raised some and has been able to recover some pieces which have been displayed in the Dunes Center in an exhibit called “The Lost City of DeMille.” But most of the set still remains buried.