1923’s silent production of The Ten Commandments proved to be one of the most ground breaking films of its time. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this was to be expected. The man essentially brought cinema to Hollywood and made the two synonymous with each other.
For The Ten Commandments, sets were huge and over-the-top, creating the blueprint for DeMille’s followup talkie version in 1956–perhaps the most ambitious films ever made. DeMille was a very ambitious guy.
Nearly 60 years later, writer, Peter Brosnan, set out on an ambitious project of his own, depicted in The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille. In 1982, after hearing that there may be an ancient Egyptian city buried in California, Brosnan becomes fixated with digging it up.
The story goes that after filming wrapped up in 1923, this massive set just disappeared. Well, DeMille was supposed to have completely destroyed his set, per a deal with the land owners in Guadalupe, California. But a brief quote from his autobiography hints that perhaps he didn’t. Maybe he just buried it beneath the sand dunes in Guadalupe.
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille jumps back and forth between DeMille’s filming of the Ten Commandments and Brosnan’s excavation, keeping the context fresh in your mind. The film also serves as a sort of mini-biography on DeMille’s life. It’s a surprisingly spiritual project, drawing beautiful parallels between DeMille’s career and Brosnan’s 30 year endeavor, and how they both overcame seemingly impossible obstacles through faith and God-given strength and determination.
For 30 years Brosnan wasn’t just trying to dig up the lost city, but also researching the filmmaking itself, compiling tons of rare interviews with cast members and locals of Guadalupe–all of which could very well double as special features on The Ten Commandments DVD release.
Brosnan often uses a romanticized viewpoint of early Hollywood, but you can tell he has a solid grasp of the times. These types of projects are much better when the filmmaker has this kind of evident passion.
The only real pitfall in this documentary is the stiff narration by Brosnan, himself. But the facts are what’s important–even if they’re not always presented in the most invigorating ways.
Brosnan showcases some truly impressive film editing. There’s definitely a specific vision in mind. Since his documentary was made over the span of 30 years, it often has a retro feel. Old footage is much grainier, truly showing the longevity of this project. Details don’t go overlooked either. Even the small ones. Each time he shows a still photograph of the Hollywood sign, it’s chronologically accurate with the time being discussed in the film.
The parallels run deep. It took Cecil B. DeMille 30 years to realize his crowning achievement. He made The Ten Commandments in 1923, but with complete freedom got to make the film he actually wanted in 1956. Brosnan’s patience pays off as well, perhaps stumbling upon his own magnum opus.