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‘The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille’ Unearths Film History

Cecil B. DeMille photo
In the midst of a modern age of obsession with Hollywood culture, a timely examination of the American film industry’s origins came in the form of a screening and panel discussion of director Peter L. Brosnan’s “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” at the Harvard Art Museums on Oct. 10.

On the surface, Brosnan’s film appears to simply be a documentary about archaeology, focusing on the unconventional excavation of a movie set — that of legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 blockbuster “The Ten Commandments”: City of the Pharaoh, an artificial ancient Egyptian metropolis. As the movie unfolds, however, it weaves Brosnan’s own story with that of DeMille’s, offering an in-depth look at the parallels between both of their acts of perseverance and defiance. While DeMille was known for commissioning some of the most extravagant movie sets of all time and reaching unprecedented success in cinema despite his studio’s doubts in his abilities, Brosnan also sought to do what was never done before. He wanted to find DeMille’s City of the Pharaoh, although many claimed it had been demolished immediately after the filming of “The Ten Commandments.”

In the panel following the screening, producer Dan J. Coplan, executive producer Francesca Judge Silva, and project archaeologist M. Colleen Hamilton voiced their continued interest in the recovery of DeMille’s city, showing pictures of the archaeology team’s progress in unearthing a third plaster-cast Sphinx from the excavation site in California’s Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes. They explained how DeMille’s city was built by an army of workers using enormous amounts of lumber, then later torn down by cutting the cables anchoring the main buildings and letting them freefall, dynamiting the pharaoh statuary, and burying the plaster-cast Sphinxes in trenches of sand. The panelists soon shifted from discussing their personal interest in the excavation project to why the recovery of Hollywood artifacts should be significant to the general public.

Hamilton spoke about how learning more about the filming of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” could inform our understanding of American history. “Keep in mind that there was a group of 2,500 individuals on site for three plus months — those building the set, those acting,” Hamilton said. “One of the things we are still looking for and are working actively to find is the tech, which could be really interesting in terms of learning how these people were living, especially during Prohibition.”

Hamilton’s comment on the crossover between film history and American history echoed the sentiment that director Brosnan expressed in a 2016 interview with Streamline.

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“In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille buried enough artifacts in the Guadalupe Dunes to fill several museums. They are a direct link to the earliest days of an American industry that went on to become one of the most powerful cultural forces of the 20th Century,” Brosnan said. “These artifacts need to be saved. Yesterday’s garbage helps us understand who we are now.”

Not only were the artifacts recovered from DeMille’s city important, but so was the public distribution of a film about the excavation. Archaeological discoveries and films about archaeology have a mutually beneficial relationship in which press coverage for one of the two will lead to an increase in general interest in the other. Hamilton also used the example of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” which depicts the religious epic of Moses, set in ancient Egypt.

“At the time when it [‘The Ten Commandments’] was released, it was when the first excavations were going on in Egypt, and that spurred on the audience’s interest — not only in the film, but also in the representation [of archaeology], which was communicating, at a global level, the interest in Egypt,” Hamilton said.

Further, the excavation is also a source of local pride among those living near the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes. Those whose grandparents witnessed the filming of “The Ten Commandments’” feel that their family history is linked to the movie relics found in the dunes.

“It’s poignant because where the artifacts are right now in the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, California, is thanks to some of the families that you saw [in Brosnan’s documentary],” Silva said. “A couple of the ranchers, their remaining families have donated a larger building so that the Dunes Center can display the bigger pieces that are recovered.”

Despite the significance that the excavation of DeMille’s lost city may have in terms of shedding light on general American history, bringing attention to the field of archaeology, and playing a part in the family history of many Guadalupe locals, Coplan said the leaders of the film industry today are largely indifferent to the project.

“It’s show business, emphasis on business. The reality is that studio heads don’t give a rat’s ass about their history. They’re worried about keeping their profits up so they can keep their perks and their positions of power,” Coplan said. “The ’56 remake of ‘The Ten Commandments’ is played, still, on ABC every year on Passover and Easter, and you would think that they would have an ingrown curiosity about that film and the history of it, but so far I’ve reached deaf ears.”

The creators behind “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” and the documentary itself both assert that Hollywood’s history provides a unique lens to view American history. There are so few films from the 1920s that are still accessible to us today that the remnants of DeMille’s elaborate movie set may be the best chance we have to understand American popular culture of that era. Despite the disinterest of major film studios in the excavation of DeMille’s city, Coplan, Hamilton, and Silva hope to screen “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” in more museums in the future to raise public awareness about the film history that is slipping slowly through their fingers.

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