Filmmakers are joining in on the rescue, too.
Yes, under a remote stretch of golden sand in central California lies the elaborately detailed set of Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent movie The Ten Commandments (not be confused with DeMille's 1956 remake fronted by Charlton Heston). The film crew tossed the massive plaster-and-clay set here 76 years ago and covered it with sand.
Now, in a fitting bit of only-in-Hollywood irony, the faux antique metropolis is being uncovered for posterity by a group of latter-day Indiana Joneses.
"We don't see this as a fake Egypt. We see this as real cinema history. It's a rich time capsule of the motion picture industry at that time," says documentary filmmaker Peter Brosnan, who along with colleagues is trying to raise $175,000 to excavate and preserve the so-called lost city.
So far about $30,000 has been raised though The Friends of the Lost City, which was organized in June 1998 to encourage donations. And Brosnan says more money should be coming in soon: "For the first time in 15 years, we are getting interest from Hollywood." (In fact, Heston himself is one of those supporting the dig.)
Brosnan got into the project nearly two decades ago after a friend told him DeMille's autobiography hinted at the site's whereabouts. That intrigued Brosnan, who decided to make a documentary about The Ten Commandments. "Our aim was to do the film and use the excavated site as a visual hook." They hope to finally finish the film next year, 17 years after discovering the set.
One reason the dig has taken so long is, as with real ancient sites, the excavation was an often tedious process. "It became obvious this was buried, fragile material," Brosnan recalls. "To recover it properly, we needed the tools of archeologists."
As soon as pieces of the set are exposed, archeologists must apply a special solidifying preservative before pulling it out of the ground. If they don't, the blocks of plaster will crumble apart like blue cheese.
Of course, there's plenty of set to uncover. With a budget of $1.4 million--about four times the average film budget--The Ten Commandments was the Titanic of its time.
The City of Pharaoh set was over 720 feet wide and towered 110 feet over the Guadalupe, California, sand dunes. Its walls and grounds were decorated with 500 tons of massive Egyptian statuary. Fifteen hundred construction workers used 25,000 pounds of nails to bind a half-million feet of lumber and 75 miles of reinforcing cable. It was considered the biggest set ever constructed.
Says Brosnan, "Every year new stuff gets exposed. And once pieces get exposed, they get sandblasted out of existence."
Brosnan says DeMille's set should be unearthed by October 2000. Progress on the dig is chronicled at www.lostcitydemille.com.