Friday, October 4, 2013

Excavating the Ten Commandments

The movie set, that is.

Have you ever wondered about those people who sit through five minutes of credits at the end of a movie?  Well, I'm one of them.  Why do I sit alone in a dark theater with the ushers standing in the aisles, tapping their feet?  Seriously, lady, what are you waiting for?  I've got work to do.  Well, I'll tell you.  Where the movie was filmed is always last.  Why?  I don't know.  Don't the producers know, for us hardcore travelers, the movie locale is the most important part?   Who cares about the names of assistant sound editors, caterers and hair stylists?  Where are those mountains located?   That beach?  That charming city street?

I went to Death Valley because of Luke Skywalker; Thailand because of James Bond.  And last weekend, I went to the Oceano Dunes because of Moses.
Buried beneath these beautiful dunes is the movie set from Cecil DeMille's extraordinary silent film, The Ten Commandments.  Filmed in 1923, it was the most expensive, most ambitious film of its day.  He hired the entire population of Guadalupe, California, for extras.  A tent city, called "Camp DeMille" was set up on the beach to house the 3,000 plus people who were needed to make this film.

Famous artists, such as Paul Iribe, the founder of the Art Deco movement, were employed to build the temple, the statues of Ramses II and the 21 giant plaster sphinxes.  The great photographer Edward Curtis documented this production.  When the filming of the Exodus scene was over, Demille was told that hauling the set away would be too expensive, so he had a 300 ft. trench bulldozed and simply buried it.

"If a thousand years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America."
                                                                                         Cecil B. DeMille

When filmmaker Peter Brosnon read the above quotation from DeMille's autobiography a few years ago, he sought out a crew of archaeologists to locate the Egyptian movie set.  Now buried under hundreds of feet of sand, they were able to uncover the above "artifacts".  An exhibit entitled "The Lost City of DeMille" can be seen at the Dunes Center in Guadalupe.  As fascinating as these plaster creatures are, an unexpected find was the debris left behind by the residents of the tent city.  The archaeologists uncovered items of everyday use, providing an historical glimpse into 1920's life.  For instance, they unearthed several glass bottles of cough syrup.  Well, Prohibition was going on and cough syrup contained up to 12% alcohol--the cocktail of choice after a hard day of filming!

An active fundraising campaign is going on for further excavation and preservation of the film set.  If you would like to contribute, please contact the Dunes Center.

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