Under the dunes: lost film set to be part of the 100-year celebration of The Ten Commandments film.

Photo courtesy of the Cecil B. Demille Foundation
BY THE SAND: Originally built in 1923, the movie set for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments was eventually buried under the dunes near Guadalupe. In 2011, filmmaker Peter Brosnan got permission and funding to dig in the Guadalupe Dune to find pieces of the set—many of which are on display at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe.

Beneath the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex lie many things. 

From geomorphic rock compacted from years of pressure to lost jewelry, the dunes have much to hide. 

But not many may be able to imagine what Raiza Giorgi describes as a critical part of Guadalupe’s history: The set of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments

“It’s the biggest motion picture set ever to be built up to that point, [called] ‘the city of the pharaoh,’” the chief financial officer for the Central Coast Film Society said. “When the film was done, [DeMille] buried the set underneath the dunes and it became a legend until it was unearthed decades later.” 

The 1923 film is celebrating its centennial this year, and the Central Coast Film Society and Lost City Celebration are partnering on a three-day event highlighting the role that lost set played in Hollywood history, the film’s impact, and the impact that the small town of Guadalupe had in its production. 

click to enlarge Under the dunes: lost film set to be part of the 100-year celebration of The Ten Commandments film.
Photo courtesy of the Cecil B. Demille Foundation
DEEP DISCUSSION: Cecil B. DeMille (center) planned a large-scale set with his art director Paul Iribe (right) and Francis McComas (left) to help bring his vision for The Ten Commandments to life.

“The film was written by Jeanie MacPherson and is in two parts, the Biblical Prologue and then the flashback to modern times (1920s) where the McTavish brothers look to the Old Testament as they grapple with business ethics and fight for the love of the same woman,” Giorgi said. 

She noted that the biblical portion of the film was received well by audiences at the time, but the modern portion struggled—something that impacted DeMille when he remade the film in 1956. That version contained only the biblical portion and starred Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh.

Attendees on Friday will have the opportunity to experience the history of the lost set’s discovery through a VIP dinner with Peter Brosnan, a documentarian, who, alongside archeologist Colleen Hamilton, uncovered the film set from the dunes starting in 2011. 

Central Coast Film Society President Sarah Risley said film fanatic Brosnan was scouring through tapes of old movies 40 years ago and wanted to visit the iconic town that hosted the filming. 

“It’s pretty interesting; they kind of just walked out and found [the set] half buried in the dunes,” Risley said. “This was in 1983 and ever since then the site where the set remains semi-buried is an active archeological dig site.” 

On Sunday, attendees will be able to explore those same dig sites and dunes—learning firsthand just how much the dunes were able to conceal and how the set came to be found, and experience the history of the dunes themselves. 

“It’s a celebration of this iconic film that was filmed at what many a film fanatic calls this ‘Egypt of California,’” Risley said with a laugh. 

Saturday attendees will experience film workshops for all ages at the Clark Center for Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande, where they can also catch a screening of the documentary that highlights the history and impact of DeMille’s film. 

click to enlarge Under the dunes: lost film set to be part of the 100-year celebration of The Ten Commandments film.
Photo courtesy of the Cecil B. Demille Foundation
UNDER THE SAND: A construction crew of nearly 1,000 people completed work on the set for The Ten Commandments, filmed 100 years ago. Central Coast residents and film buffs will commemorate the movie and the recovery of the century-old set during a weekend-long celebration in October. 

“Before the term blockbuster was invented, Cecil B. DeMille was arguably the first filmmaker to create large-scale film productions with The Ten Commandments,” Giorgi said. “DeMille’s religious epic was a blend of grandeur and story.” 

Erika Weber, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center’s executive director, said that the film would have never come to be without local cooperation and input. 

“Nearly every resident of Guadalupe participated in the production of The Ten Commandments, and DeMille employed every local rancher to use their livestock,” Weber said.

That local input helped create a movie that, according to Weber, used what is still considered one the most impressive sets. 

“The movie set is still gargantuan relative to today’s productions,” Weber said. “It is the only remaining set from Hollywood’s fundamental formation years, which set a precedent for today’s blockbuster films and popular culture.” 

None of that would even be possible without the contributions of the small town of Guadalupe, according to Risley, who noted that the dunes have served as a veritable time capsule for this century-old piece of Hollywood history. 

“This film does not happen without the people of Guadalupe—not only lending themselves to serve as extras and actors, but also in the way they carry on the legacy of this film,” she said. “Those people have descendants who were raised in that legacy—it is something that they feel just as much a part of as their ancestors, and they should because they are just as much part of building that legacy as The Ten Commandments is.”

Staff Writer Adrian Vincent Rosas, from the Sun’s sister paper, New Times, is headed out to the dunes. Reach him at [email protected].

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