by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
When THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE screens at The Egyptian Theatre Sept. 23, and the documentary’s full 30 years of footage finally gets a proper showing, it will be in the mythical city of its origin, Hollywood. Scroll back in time to 1923, the Great Director DeMille stands in blowing sand, turning back the hands of time to a Biblical Age when “The Ten Commandments” made for cinematic chaff. Pardon the “outdoor voice” on that florid description, but there’s something really wild about this film, not just an actual lost city of a film set near Santa Barbara.
It’s the cinephiles who made this thing, and kept pushing this celluloid ball up a hill for eons to find a distributor, in some kind of super-human film-worthy feat. In fact, remarkably, their efforts will pay off on Oct. 3 when Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms will finally stream this thing for the widest possible audience worldwide. So let’s go on this adventure with them, back in time to the 80’s. It all began in 1982, apparently.
Which leads to our clunky tagline: “In 1982 Peter Brosnan heard a story about an ancient Egyptian city buried in the California desert. For thirty years he’s been fighting to dig it up.” Peter Brosnan is no relation to the lesser-known James Bond and world famous actor, Pierce Brosnan, but Pierce should really play this guy in a biopic. There is every element of human suffering and tragedy, enduring pain, and triumph not over the Red Sea, but over the red tape of petty bureaucrats, permits, and politics in this windswept saga.
Here’s the approximate storyline, as the film’s notes tell it. “Have you seen “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston? Did you know that in 1923 DeMille made a silent version of “The Ten Commandments?” He shot the film in Santa Barbara County, California, about 150 miles north of Hollywood, and built a huge City of the Pharaoh set.”
“Designed by Paul Iribe, the “father of Art Deco,” it was the largest set in motion picture history. When filming wrapped, the city mysteriously vanished.” The dig and film funding came in part from Cecil B. DeMille’s namesake granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley, who also makes a surprise appearance in the documentary.
If you watch clips of the original 20’s picture, you can see the vanished Sphinx after the voluminous opening credits and title cards. This is a Hollywood version of the Bible after all, so it’s framed with fancy lettering and moralizing, but when the oddly Western-looking, white-faced man-made monument appears, you know it’s show time.
In the Beginning There Was Cecil B. DeMille’s Picture
Years ago, the media hopped on this fake Egyptian relic bandwagon from time to time. In 1991, “PEOPLE” magazine published an April Fool’s dated true story on this adventure entitled “Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments Set Lay Buried for 68 Years, But Filmmaker Says He Can Dig It.” By 2015, The Independent UK backdates the story to 30-year old Peter in 1982 taking on his mission to unearth 300 tons of statuary, including 21 chariots delivered by train, plus Ramses look-alike’s to be liberated from a sandy grave. Each print outlet describes “the unmoving dunes” as a major tip-off to the fact that they were essentially Hollywood landfills, artificial berms, that is.
Last year, Brosnan spelled it out for the “Santa Barbara Independent” newspaper as such: “It began as archaeology. When Bruce Cardozo, Richard Eberhardt, and I “discovered” the set in 1983, we realized that the tools and disciplines of archaeology would be vital to saving not just buried statues, but a record of the lives of the people who worked on the set. One of our first moves was to contact the archaeologists, including Dr. Brian Fagan (UCSB), Dr. Paul Chace (California Society of Archaeology), Dr. Ray Brandis (University of San Diego). and Dr. Robert Hoover (Cal Poly SLO), who were all early supporters of our efforts.”
Every major broadcaster through the years aired the story too. But not all gave credit where credit is due. Consider Brian Williams of NBC, here he is talking about the dig site without mentioning THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE once.
Brian Williams of NBC News Aired a Segment on Dig, Doesn’t Mention the Doc, Ouch…
What could be so riveting about old plaster of Paris parts of a faux faced winged monster of Thebes with the lion’s maned human female head on a lioness’ body? Actually in the Egyptian tradition, this same creature has a male head, on a lion-esque body, and no wings. These details are less fascinating than the creator of the 1920’s movie props, a visionary, who was none other than Paul Iribe, a remarkable French illustrator whom Jesse Lasky singled out to DeMille.
According to DeMille’s official website, which published a recollection of the relationship, “Jesse Lasky recommended the French fashion illustrator Iribe to DeMille.”
“Iribe began as art director on Male and Female (1919). On The Ten Commandments (1923) he designed all settings except the Israelite camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, which was done by Francis McComas. Iribe left DeMille’s staff after designing a portion of The King of Kings (1927).”
The Art Deco feel of these pieces is authentic, in other words. Much like once-tossed cells from vintage animation, the historic cinematic value of these Iribe production designed statues also comes with an intrinsic worth at having been turned out by his own hand. Paul Iribe (1883-1935) is often called “the unsung hero of Art Deco.” In fact, as far as jewelry design, this multi-talented artist born Paul Iribarneygaray from Angoulême, France, was so influential in jewel-making he stands alone as the creator with CoCo Chanel of her “signature” shooting-stars stylized diamond neck cuff. (See his fantastic designs and learn more about that on Jewels du Jour .)
But back to our movie, the documentary with a provenance as impressive as a fine artwork. It’s not so much the man-hours it took to bring this documentary to the screen, but also the perseverance with which the core crew soldiered on through the years. They employed Archeologists and Geologists, some of whom quit and refused to talk about it ever again due to the frustrating nature of the project. Archeologist Colleen Hamilton was a project director and seems to have survived to the final credits. Peter Brosnan is shown at various ages dealing with a revolving door of experts in this film.
The weathering on all cast and crew really shows how the sands of time do erase all traces of hype from Hollywood. But then again, some things seem to last forever in the retelling, the remakes, the 1923 Ten Commandments, the 1956 Charlton Heston – Yul Brynner version, both directed by DeMille, and now this Finding Of documentary that retraces the hidden folly of a film landfill from decades ago.
Slowly the painstaking discoveries they made on the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes some 150 miles from Hollywood in Santa Barbara County make this doc worthy of a feature film, as mentioned. When The Nature Conservancy puts the ecological brakes on their dream, somehow they carry on like the march of time, unearthing what unnatural architecture lies beneath the wind-shorn facade.
Even the great Leonard Maltin was impressed, upon seeing it in a festival screening. He lent his name to this quote: “I’ve watched the doc and I’m very glad I did. What an extraordinary story. I thought I knew all there was to know about Peter Brosnan’s discovery of the Ten Commandments set in the California desert, but I was wrong. While documenting his obsessive, thirty-year odyssey he also traces Cecil B. DeMille’s fascinating saga. The result is a rare combination of film and cultural history. — Leonard Maltin.”
A Film Is Born: THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, Watch
So watch what happens in the Man vs. Nature Hollywood story that is THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE. There will be a Q&A conversation with Peter Brosnan and his last archaeologist Colleen Hamilton after the screening on Sept. 23, at 2 pm, at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., visit here for details. Also note the doc will stream Oct. 3 on Amazon and other services, check their site for updates.
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