Review: 'The Lost City of DeMille'

A Hollywood Urban Legend Unearthed

On the set of DeMille's original The 10 Commandments 1923

The Lost City of DeMille is a pure delight for cinema historians. This tiny, low budget documentary was thirty plus years in the making and yet captures more than 90 years of film history in its remarkably fun 87 minutes. The history captured in The Lost City of DeMille is that of the director who defined the early days of film and was both progenitor and savior of the art form in its infancy and pubescence. For that alone, The Lost City of DeMille deserves our praise.

In 1982, filmmaker Peter Brosnan heard an old Hollywood urban legend. The legend goes that famed filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, in order to save money, had used the same set for multiple biblical epics of the 1910s and 1920s. Then, to further save money on labor, DeMille had ordered the sets buried in the same desert where they’d towered over nearby enclaves. The place was the small, California town of Guadalupe in Santa Barbara County.

With help from his friend and producer, the late Bruce Cardoza, Brosnan sought out archaeologist Robert Parker and set forth into the desert. What they found was a treasure trove of tantalizing clues. In just briefly brushing away the sand, they’d stumbled on artifacts that lent credence to the to the long-held urban legend. One thing was for sure, DeMille had been here in 1923, but uncovering the truth about the lost city DeMillle buried in the desert would prove nearly as daunting as the task faced by the men who built and eventually buried that lost city.

Part of what I love about The Lost City of DeMille is the trip through cinema history that fills in the movie around the central battle over permits and politics that goes into getting the permission to uncover this Hollywood treasure. Brosnan takes us on a tour of most of Cecil B. DeMille’s famed career from his start at the genesis of Hollywood in the silent film era, through his first adaptation of The 10 Commandments in 1923 to his final, even more epic, 10 Commandments adaptation in the early 1950s—a trip to Egypt that nearly killed DeMille but nevertheless led to triumph.

The 10 Commandments is, arguably, the last great epic of the early days of Hollywood. It proved to be DeMille’s final film and with it an epoch of Hollywood history would come to an end. Others would try to bring about similar epics but it’s DeMille’s The 10 Commandments that has stood the test of time. Among the reasons why, which the filmmakers aren’t afraid to discuss, is DeMille’s unfailing piety. DeMille’s devotion to Christianity is what made his epics of the bible such remarkable movies. Even if you’re not a Christian, you can’t help but be awed by his commitment to the stories of his faith.

Think of the remarkable challenges DeMille faced. The Lost City of DeMille takes us behind the scenes of DeMille’s ambitious 1923 The 10 Commandments and it’s fascinating to see the things that DeMille was able to do with the most practical of practical effects. DeMille parted The Red Sea, not once, but twice in his career and each was more dazzling and exciting than the other. DeMille directed blockbusters years before the term existed and seeing how he created such extravaganzas is purely delightful as a film fan.

Then there is the arduous, tedious, and stalling creation of this documentary. Peter Brosnan painstakingly recounts the hardships he faced for 30-some years trying to get the paperwork and the politics on his side so that he could uncover this incredibly rich prize of film history. Brosnan and his team faced opposition everywhere they went, even as what they were doing was heralded by the media and by film fans of all stripes.

Archaeology is expensive and time consuming, on top of being a huge gamble. Imagine hiring experts and diggers and equipment and hauling them into the desert. What if you don’t find something? What if you get out there and the elements have washed everything away? What if you staked your career on making a documentary about a Hollywood legend and found yourselves thwarted by time?

That’s a pretty great story and Peter Brosnan captures every frustrating and magical moment of this journey into Hollywood history brilliantly. I could criticize the low-budget look of the movie but that would merely be pedantic and unfair. The Lost City of DeMille began on low quality film, graduated to old school film stock, and eventually ended being shot in crystal clear digital. It’s kind of hard to demand visual consistency from a work that includes more than 30 years of interviews, digs, and funding problems. That The Lost City of DeMille exists in any film form is a minor miracle.

The Lost City of DeMille may not be the most accomplished documentary of 2017, but from the standpoint of the joyous love of film history, it’s a triumph. The film brings the legendary Cecil B. DeMille back to the forefront of American film history and for a film nut like myself, I can’t thank Peter Brosnan enough. The Lost City of DeMille is a true treasure to be loved and appreciated by film fans for years to come. 

Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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Review: 'The Lost City of DeMille'