WASHINGTON, December 2, 2017 — 180 miles north of Los Angeles, beneath the high, sandy mounds of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes’ nature conservancy a 24-square-mile area of central California coastline – sit 1920s historic relics as fragile as the dune’s wind-shifting sands.
And it was these very ocean gusts that uncovered a forgotten piece of Hollywood history: plaster sphinxes from director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film “The Ten Commandments.”
Silent epics of Biblical proportions
That same year saw the premiere of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s one and only play “The Vegetable, or From President to Postman,” a comedy about a man who dreams of being president of the United States should he fail as a postal worker.
The 1920s: Charles Lindbergh purchases the Flying Jenny in 1923
It was also the year a young pilot, Charles Lindbergh, would purchase an old Curtis JN4-D “Flying Jenny” for $500.
“They didn’t ask to see my license,” Lindberg later recalled, “because you didn’t need to have a license to fly an airplane in 1923.”
He made history four years later by flying solo from New York to Paris.
The 1920s: Tut, the Boy king found in 1922
In 1922, the world was galvanized by news of British archaeologist Howard Carter’s remarkable discovery in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings; an undisturbed, treasure-filled tomb of a minor 18th dynasty pharaoh named Tutankhamun.
When DeMille, with help from the Los Angeles Times, conducted a contest to decide the subject of the director’s next film, winner F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan, suggested it should center on the contest of wills between Moses, leader of the Hebrew slaves, and Pharaoh Ramesses the Great, in what became the “Ten Commandments.”
“You cannot break the Ten Commandments,” Nelson said in his contest-winning letter, “they will break you.”
Building statues for a silent blockbuster
And so, movie producer Adolph Zukor committed the handsome sum of $750,000 (nearly $11 million today) to make the silent-era classic.
In May of that year, four trucks transported twenty-one 25-foot-high sphinxes, a segmented 109-foot-long wall covered in base reliefs of rearing horses pulling war chariots, and two 35-foot-high likenesses of the pharaoh to stand as bookends.
When the cast of 2,500 Hollywood stars and extras, with 3,000 animals in tow, arrived at Guadalupe after their 180-mile trek, a glistening pharaonic capital stood amid the seaside dunes.
According to Hollywood legend, it was special effects man Roy Pomeroy suggestion that to defer the costs of hauling the massive sets back to Los Angeles, they should demolish and bury them in the sand.
The Lost City of DeMille
In 2012 a sphinx, with a head that was in shatters, was carefully restored. But not much more was done after recovery funds ran dry.
More recently, however, the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center raised $120,000 to continue recovery efforts.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of site,” archaeologist M. Colleen Hamilton told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve worked on sites all over the country, and I think this one could only happen in California.”
Like the book of Deuteronomy says,
“For they will draw out the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand.”