Some of my favorite documentaries are ones that look at unfinished projects and pieces of film history that have been allowed to slip through the cracks or, in this case, be buried under the sand. The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is a story of determination by one man committed to preserving a little bit of silent film history, a landscape where over 90% of silent cinema is lost to time. While its production values are cheaper than most, the grit and love is there and worth your appreciation.
Peter Brosnan, director and narrator, says he was astonished to hear from a friend that director Cecil B. DeMille had buried the sets to his 1923 epic, The Ten Commandments, in the sand dunes of Santa Barbara. Determined to find out whether it was true or not, Brosnan would go on a decades long quest, fighting with the county of Santa Barbara, to excavate the sight and save DeMille’s sphinxes from extinction.
Brosnan’s story is so compelling that you can overlook the Powerpoint style the documentary has. Unfortunately, the lack of a slick production design might lead audiences to think this is a cheap attempt to tell a story and that’s far from the case. Brosnan combines his own quest to find DeMille’s lost city with a great, if basic, DeMille biography. What’s at the heart of Brosnan’s story where DeMille is concerned was the director’s interest in religion, the way of building a bridge between his half-Episcopalian/half-Jewish upbringing.
There’s some beautiful archival footage woven in, as well as interviews with many people who are, sadly, no longer with us like Agnes DeMille and Leatrice Joy. When Brosnan originally started his excavations in the 1990s he also interviewed numerous people who had interacted with DeMille and the set, mainly as children. One of the interviewees talks about tasting the Jell-O used to mimic the parting of the Red Sea. These moments are beautifully woven into this half-behind the scenes feature and half-documentary.
But as much as the DeMille story of actually making The Ten Commandments fascinates, the documentary truly shines when Brosnan takes the lead and discusses his own attempt to uncover DeMille’s city in the Guadalupe Dunes. The story is Ahab-esque, with Brosnan and his crew being repeatedly stymied by various political heads in the city of Santa Barbara. At one point there are allusions to a conspiracy against Brosnan’s archaeologist that’s abandoned a bit too quickly. But really, for classic film fans, the quest is one of frustration.
To realize the city is just flaking away with the sand and that starting early might have kept things intact will just remind you of how precious these pieces of memorabilia are. I’d also love to know what is currently happening on the Guadalupe Dunes and if any future excavation is happening. (Maybe because I live in Los Angeles, I’m waiting for them to just build a condo on top of it.)
If you’re a classic film fan you have to seek out The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille. Hearing Brosnan’s story will stoke the fires of your own Old Hollywood appreciation. It will also remind you, sadly, how much we’ve probably lost to time.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.