Raiders of the Lost City

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Raiders of the Lost City


Fish, Peter, Sunset


* John Parker kneels and scoops sand with cupped hands. "Ahh," he says. "The sphinx's paw."

It is a moment of some drama, a moment that, were this a silent film, might be succeeded by a subtitle - "If these stones could speak!" - then a dissolve to Egypt in the time of the pharaohs. But the paw is not stone; it's plaster. The tale it tells is of the kingdom of Hollywood, a pharaoh named Cecil B. DeMille, and the making of The Ten Commandments.

"DeMille realized movies could fill a screen with things you couldn't see anywhere else," says Peter Brosnan, the screenwriter and documentary film-maker who, with archaeologist Parker, is attempting to excavate DeMille's lost City of the Pharaoh.

Certainly no one outside the movie industry would dream of re-creating an Egyptian royal city on a windblown stretch of the Santa Barbara County coast. In 1923 DeMille was already a jodhpur-clad avatar of Hollywood extravagance. His next silent epic, he announced, would be inspired by nothing less than the Ten Commandments. Most of his movie would be a morality play set in Jazz Age San Francisco. But as prologue, DeMille would tell the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. DeMille would therefore need pharaohs and slaves and chariot drivers and sand. Lots of sand.

And so it came to pass that DeMille built his plaster of paris Xanadu on the long stretch of dunes outside Guadalupe, California. City of the Pharaoh was a press agent's dream. Sixteen hundred laborers built hieroglyph-covered walls 110 feet tall, flanked by four statues of Ramses II and 21 sphinxes, 5 tons each. DeMille populated his city with 2,500 actors and extras, housing them in tents on an adjacent dune.

But lo, the resulting movie proved a mixed bag. "The second, modern part is kind of unwatchable," Brosnan admits. But the film triumphed where it counted, grossing a then-amazing $4 million.

DeMille's city met a cloudier fate. At filming's end, the director toppled the city, using a horse-drawn bulldozer to bury some of it in a ditch. "It was common practice to find out where directors had made a movie with an expensive set," Parker says. "Rival companies would film a cheapie there and release it first. Tearing the set down was DeMille protecting his patent."

City of the Pharaoh slumbered beneath the sands for 60 years. …

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