Buried Treasure in the Dunes
There was a spate of stories in the LA Times and elsewhere in 2014 about the wind revealing the giant paw of a sphinx in the sand dunes south of Pismo Beach. With the work of fascinated archaeologists, partially funded by the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, fragile plaster casts that were meant to portray Egyptian buildings and monuments were unearthed.
It was all about make-believe. In 1923 the famous film director Cecil B. DeMille commissioned a gigantic set for his movie The Ten Commandments, built in pieces in LA and moved by rail to the dunes near the town of Guadalupe. The DeMille Ten Commandments was one of the earliest made in Technicolor, adding to its realism and appeal—but it was still silent. The film was unusual because the Biblical story only took up about the first third of it; the remainder was set in 1923-time showing two brothers who led lives on opposite sides of the 10 Commandments — you can guess how that turned out.
After filming was completed, the set including its sphinxes guarding the entrance to the “city” was left in the dunes to slowly decay into the sand. The set also faded in local memory, and would have been lost to all time except some determined film buffs following clues in DeMille’s autobiography found the artifacts—sometimes called The Lost City of DeMille—in 1983.
Can you visit the actual spot of the set? Not based on any information we have. However, you can see some of the artifacts and a short film about the set at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe, and maybe you’ll run into one of the locals who knows where to look.
Whether you actually see the set or not,
it gives us some interesting views on the way early films were made. In the first few decades of the 20th century, lots of film makers dealing with blockbuster topics made sets for actors to inhabit, faking the real thing with another real thing that was just as big, but flimsier. There was a lot of craft involved in designing and building those realistic sets that helped movie goers imagine being there, and a lot of expense, no doubt.
DeMille was not content to let the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments be his last word on the epic of Moses and the Jews’ escape from Egypt. He made a second film titled The Ten Commandments about the very same story in 1956 and again shot in Technicolor. The fifties was a time when Hollywood studios filled their biggest productions with an extensive cast of A-lister actors, so this version of the film featured Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Debra Paget, plus a bunch of others whose names you would recognize if you are a film buff (or were born before 1970 or so).
As you probably remember, since the 1956 film has been on TV just about every year, one of the big scenes is the parting of the Red Sea. That scene indicates how much movie craft had changed from 1923. DeMille didn’t have to have a real Red Sea; he figured out how to make it seem like one with clever modeling and film editing. He built a pair of dump tanks that poured water into a trench, and then ran the film backwards. Splice in the fleeing Jews and the chasing Egyptians, and you have a (sort of) realistic scene (thanks to Phyllis Loves Classics for the info).
Today, you can watch Furiosa careen through post-apocalypse Australia in Mad Max: Fury Road, at least partly in digitalized “sets” that hardly exist at all, except as electrons. I mean, how hard would it have been to have to actually build the dome containing the tributes’ desperate contests in the Hunger Games and what kind of amazing other worlds will we see in the new Star Wars?
I wonder what DeMille would do with The Ten Commandments today. Sadly, he’s not around any longer to show us. But maybe you will be inspired to do it! Start with a short trip to the Dunes Center to get started.
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