Archaeologists have excavated a sphinx from the sand, and they didn’t have to leave California to do it.
On Dec. 4, 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille’s first — B&W and silent — version of “The Ten Commandments” had its Los Angeles premiere, at the Grauman Egyptian Theater. More than 50 years later, in 1956, DeMille returned to the story in a full-color, widescreen spectacular, starring Charlton Heston as Moses.
The Egyptian scenes from the original film were built at the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes on the Central California coast, between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
Long before the days of green screen, motion capture, and CG, DeMille had Paul Iribe, a designer known for his spectacular art deco work, to construct a massive set that was 12 stories high and 800 feet wide on the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes. Like the film, the set was ambitious in scale, but as soon as the film wrapped DeMille realized it was too expensive too move and he didn’t want another filmmaker using it. That said, he had it buried.
In early November, archaeologists exploring the dunes unearthed the head of a sphinx, made of Plaster of Paris and weighing about 300 pounds. Even though the film was in black and white, it — like the rest of the set — is painted in brilliant colors.
The saga of finding and digging up DeMille’s 95-year-old set is a story in itself. Back in the ’80s, filmmaker Peter Brosnan heard about the set and wanted to find it. But, he faced headwinds from environmental preservationists, and the actual dig didn’t begin until many years later.
In 2017, he released a documentary called “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” which includes footage of the dig and interviews with local residents who saw the filming back in the ’20s. Also appearing in the film are DeMille, niece Agnes DeMille, granddaughter Cecelia DeMille Presley (who wrote a book not long ago), Heston and producer A.C. Lyles.
Here’s the trailer:
Sadly, many movie and TV sets, costumes and props have been considered junk once the project ends, winding up recycled, discarded or warehoused. So, much of Hollywood history has been lost, along with the work of countless craftsmen.
Luckily, remnants of the 1923 “The Ten Commandments” are once again seeing the light of day — and you can view the results of the dig.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. is among the organizations helping fund the costly excavation activities. The artifacts can be viewed at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe, where the latest sphinx head will go on display in summer, 2018.
Image: Courtesy Paramount Pictures