Sunday, November 10, 2019
THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE
I discovered this 2016 documentary on Tubi. It details one man's quixotic attempt to recover a large film set that was built--and supposedly buried--on the central coast of California.
The writer, producer, and director of THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, Peter Brosnan, had heard a story in the early 1980s about the making of the silent version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The story goes that the imposing set built for the film under director Cecil B. DeMille's orders had been buried underneath the California sand dunes upon which it was erected. Brosnan was so intrigued by the tale that he decided to go to the actual location (near Guadalupe, CA), attempt to dig up the remains of the set, and make a documentary about it.
What seemed like a simple concept turned out to be a frustrating endeavor that went on for thirty years. Every time it seemed that Brosnan had managed to get all the details set so the recovery could begin, one thing or another--mostly local bureaucratic red tape--would shut the process down. Brosnan covers all of this in the film, and one can't help when watching this why the man just didn't throw up his hands and forget about the whole thing--or get a bunch of people with shovels together in the middle of the night and go ahead on his own.
Interspersed with Brosnan's efforts is some production history on both the silent and the sound versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, along with a mini-biography of Cecil B. DeMille. When Brosnan started this project in the 1980s, he was able to interview a number of folks who had worked alongside DeMille, and who had actually been on the silent version's Guadalupe set. Clips from these talks are in the documentary.
THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE is a fascinating story, especially for film buffs. The idea that a vast set, built for a silent movie epic, lies buried and is awaiting full discovery, can't help but fire up one's imagination. But one also develops a sense of annoyance while watching this film, due to the head scratching decisions of a few small-time government officials who seemed to have something personal against Brosnan and his project. The movie also reminds us what real Hollywood spectacle was--and how creative, talented men like Cecil B. DeMille were determined to put the most wondrous things they possibly could on the screen.