In 1923, the legendary film producer and director Cecil B. DeMille transported a small army of actors, technicians, and laborers to the windswept sand dunes of Guadalupe in northern Santa Barbara County. Here he ordered that a magnificent “city of the Pharoahs” be constructed for his silent film epic The Ten Commandments.
DeMille planned to juxtapose a modern-day parable about two brothers with the story of Moses. He envisioned a true cinematic spectacle with enormous crowd scenes and huge sets. The centerpiece was to be a grand ancient Egyptian city out in the desert. As an example of his “spare no expense” mentality, DeMille sent one of his assistants on a 20,000-mile trip to the Middle East to conduct research.
Architect Paul Iribe, a key figure in the development of the Art Deco style, received the commission to design the sets. A 90-day lease was negotiated with the dunes owner, the Union Sugar Company, and in May 1923, construction began. DeMille’s studio had set the film’s budget at $730,000, a very high sum for these early days of movie-making.
For two months, some 1,300 workers labored in the sandy wastes to construct an ancient Egyptian city. The result was a set that combined historical accuracy with Art Deco flourishes. The city walls rose 110 feet above the “desert” floor. Four 35-foot-tall statues of Ramses the Great flanked the main gate. On either side of the avenue leading to the gate were 21 sphinxes, each weighing five tons. In all, 50,000 feet of lumber, 25,000 pounds of nails, 250 tons of plaster, and 75 miles of wire were used in construction of the city. It was one of the largest outdoor movie sets ever constructed.
Workers also toiled to complete the tent city to house 2,500 actors and extras. The camp included several hundred two-man tents, two mess tents that each could hold 1,500 people, a hospital, and a large projection tent devoted to viewing the daily rushes. More than 130 trucks made the daily trip between Santa Maria and the camp, hauling in supplies and taking away the camp refuse.
It was truly an enormous undertaking. For example, more than two tons of makeup were used by the actors. Lunch at “Camp DeMille” required 7,500 sandwiches and 400 gallons of coffee. A separate kitchen served those of the Orthodox Jewish faith, hired by DeMille to lend “authenticity” to the film. Downwind from the camp were the corrals, which held 3,000 animals. The set and camp took up more than 24 square miles.
The $730,000 was not nearly enough to fund all of this. At one point, DeMille’s boss, Adolph Zukor, telegraphed him, “You have lost your mind. Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille plowed ahead and had to secure a personal loan to see the movie to completion. The final cost of the film was some $1.4 million. Yet The Ten Commandments turned out to be a triumph, grossing more at the box office than any film in history up to that time. DeMille reportedly donated his earnings from the film to charity.
Although the lease required the sets to be hauled away, about all that was done was to dynamite the base of the city walls and push them over. The rest of the set was left to the winds and shifting sands.
Today, the majority of the sets remain under the sand dunes. An exhibition devoted to the Lost City may be seen at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe.
In his autobiography, published in 1983, DeMille had this to say about the production: “If a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America.” In this era of computer graphics, they just don’t make movies like this anymore.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.