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Monday, December 11, 2017

Southern California Vol. 5 - The Lost Egyptian City in Sand Dune National Park

Would you believe that there's an entire Egyptian city buried in the sand dunes just north of Los Angeles?  I wouldn't have either before I moved out here but it's true and it's a hell of a story.  

The movie business has played more prominently in Southern California's modern history than any other industry.  Over the last century, it's drawn everyone's attention to this area of the country, for better or for worse.  These days it's a fairly regulated and normal business to be in but back when it first started, making movies was a little like ranching in the wild west.  Sure you had big name directors and stars but there were still outlaws about and a sense of "anything goes".

By the early 1920's, there was no bigger name in the film industry than Cecil B. Demille.  The man had made his name as a visionary and when he decided to film The Ten Commandments, he wanted it to be larger than anything that had ever been filmed before.  He commissioned work on building a set like no other.  It would contain an entire, life-sized Egyptian temple.  There would be four gigantic statues of Ramses II (40 tons each).  There would be twelve sphinxes, eight gigantic lions and all of it would be erected in what is now Sand Dune National Park along the Central Coast of California.

To say it was a massive undertaking is short selling it.  The set build alone employed 1,500 carpenters and used 25,000 pounds of nails.  Ultimately though, the sets were built and the movie was shot.  Demille's vision was realized in what is considered to this day one of the greatest cinematic endeavors ever.

Remember though, that this was the wild west days of film making.  Demille knew that if he left his sets out there intact, other directors would lead their own crews out and use them.  So he did the only thing he could do.  He destroyed them.  According to legend, he burned them to the ground himself but in reality, he had his crews demolish them and bury the remains.

And that's the story as it was told to a young freelance journalist named Peter Brosnan back in the late 1970's.  Brosnan had gone to film school and had heard the story there.  He came up with an idea to get an archeology team together to uncover the remains.  He figured he'd film a documentary about it but there was one problem.  No one knew exactly where the set had been erected.  The dunes themselves stretch for more than 30 miles.  It would be like finding a needle in haystack.

Brosnan researched the area at local libraries, asked locals what they knew and did everything he could think of to find it.  Finally, he was put in touch with a man who had driven cattle across the dunes frequently.  He took Brosnan out on the sand and after hiking a mile or so, pointed out an area that he called "The Dune That Never Moves".  Sticking right out of it was a piece of the set.

Unfortunately for Brosnan, he was never able to make his film the way he wanted. Between lack of funding and other problems, he gave up on it for years until circa 2010 when he was able to put together a small team that uncovered a sphinx head.  By that time, the set had been buried for over 90 years.  

Digging still goes on to this day.  In fact, the reason I'm posting this is because just last week another sphinx head was uncovered.  Here's a photo.

You can visit the Dune Center at Sand Dunes National Park, see the pieces they've uncovered and hear more of the story behind Demille's lost Egyptian city.  It's something you'll likely never see again in the modern age of film making where entire worlds are created via computer.  Then again, if you watch the number of names scrolling by in the closing credits of a film today, there's easily more people working on it than even the small army Demille used in his day.

If you think this is cool and like uncovering mysteries, then why not pick up my new novel The Wash.  There's a mystery and yes it does need to be uncovered but there's a whole lot less sand to get lodged in your underwear.

Until next time, adios!

1 comment:

Lisanne Harrington said...

I had no idea this existed, but from what I know about deMille, it sounds just like something he'd do.