LOS ANGELES, NOV. 14 -- In an effort to unearth -- literally -- a bit of Hollywood's past, a filmmaker and an archaeologist have been scouring a bleak California landscape under which Cecil B. De Mille buried a gigantic set used in his 1923 silent epic "The Ten Commandments."
Depending on what artifacts the team can locate under the sandy dunes of Guadalupe, 150 miles northwest of here, the members may begin excavating the site -- as soon as they can dig up enough funds. The preliminary search is being aided by a ground-penetrating radar device and a $10,000 grant from the Bank of America, whose founding president, A.P. Giannini, helped bankroll the film nearly 70 years ago.
Peter Brosnan, an independent filmmaker who has been immersed in this venture for several years, and John Parker, a Northern California archaeologist and consultant, were working at the site today and expect to make an initial report on their findings at a press conference there on Monday.
De Mille, whose name has become synonymous with film epics and titillating biblical stories, created a lavish City of the Pharaoh for his silent "Ten Commandments" (which he remade in a better-known 1956 talking version with Charlton Heston as Moses). The dimensions and labor costs were as epic as the film. The set stood 10 floors tall over the dunes, spanned 750 feet and required 500,000 feet of lumber, 250 tons of plaster and 25,000 pounds of nails. It featured four 35-foot statues of Pharaoh Ramses and 21 giant sphinxes, each weighing five tons. When the film was completed, instead of hauling the set away, De Mille had it dismantled and buried on the site.
The crew did the work, according to Kari Johnson, administrative coordinator of Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit organization here devoted to preserving artifacts of the film industry. Hollywood Heritage is the sponsor of Brosnan's project and the technical recipient of the Bank of America grant. The group also runs the Hollywood Studio Museum out of the building that housed De Mille's office and quarters when he produced "The Squaw Man," the first full-length film shot in Hollywood, in 1913.
"I think it would have irked De Mille to destroy a set," says Johnson.
But it's also believed that De Mille relished having a little fun with posterity -- he hinted at that in his memoirs -- and imagined playing a practical joke on future archaeologists who might trip across his buried Egyptian city. "The irony of coming along 100 or 1,000 years from now and digging up an Egyptian site in the California landscape? Oh, sure," Johnson says. "I think De Mille kind of got a kick out of burying it."
It's unclear where the more gigantic pieces of the set might go once unearthed. "We don't have the display space to put up a set reconstruction," says Richard Adkins, director of the Hollywood Studio Museum. "There has been interest by the Smithsonian, and smaller artifacts could be shown at our museum."
Adkins said there may be some interest in displaying the pieces in the locale where they were found because that desertlike site figured prominently in a number of early films, including Rudolf Valentino's "The Sheik."
De Mille made "The Ten Commandments" for a then-awesome $1.4 million but only after it ran over budget partway through. The director also happened to be a vice president of a subsidiary bank of what would later become the Bank of America. He went to Giannini and asked for half a million dollars to add to the half million he already had for the film. According to a press statement issued by the bank to coincide with the excavation, Giannini "was a great judge of character and had a high opinion of De Mille's talent. He gave De Mille a check for $500,000." Postscript: The film made $4.1 million.
The bank so far has funded only the preliminary search at the site. "We thought this was a really interesting project which dovetailed very nicely with our media entertainment practice," says Gary Matus, senior vice president of entertainment and media industries at Bank of America.