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New Release Review (VOD) - THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE review
A documentary attempts to unearth the lost sets of Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments.







Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Peter Brosnan

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE poster

If you could own any arcane movie prop from the entire history of cinema, what would you go for? Every cinema fan worth their salted popcorn has given this serious thought: mine would be an original Lament Configuration from the Hellraiser films, or one of Divine’s mad wigs, both manageable trinkets with aesthetic appeal and deeply personal meanings. But Peter Brosnan, writer/director/producer of documentary The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille placed his sights a little higher, aiming to excavate the sublime reliefs and epic statuary of the sets of DeMille’s (original 1923) The Ten Commandments, which had apparently been buried in the boundless and bare sand dunes of Santa Barbara (the 1920s, of course, being a time before moviepropwarehouse.com). The reason for Brosnan’s Quixotic endeavour? The time-honoured motivation of blokes committing themselves to mad activities since the era of Pharaoh Khafre and beyond: Brosnan heard a story of the set’s sandy interment while he was drinking in a bar. Count me in!

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE

‘Ready when you are Mr. DeMille’, the old joke goes, a punchline derived from the well-established ostentation of the director’s cast-of-thousands productions. The preceding detail of the joke outlines DeMille’s extravagant mise-en-scene; horses bolting, extras marching, light catching rococo sets; the elaborate orchestration of which the cameraman has missed - yoikes! I mean, talk about grandeur! Re-watching the clips of DeMille’s productions edited in among the talking heads which relate the slow, decades long process of Brosnan locating the ruins, I longed for a revival season of DeMille at my local arthouse (come on Claire at Chapter Arts!), and to experience this epic realisation upon the big screen instead of just on telly every Easter. These images, untainted by the sell-by of CGI, are still timeless. And the documentary is similarly in awe, segueing for the most part into a hagiography of DeMille and his stunning films, which were essentially mini-industries within themselves; exemplars of the enterprise and escapism that studio system provided back when the word Hollywood actually meant something.

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE

And this is perhaps the problem with The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille: the eventual trajectory of Brosnan managing to fulfil his mad quest isn’t enough to fill a piece of torn prop parchment, let alone a feature length doc. What The Lost City… subsequently comprises of is a sort of beginners TCM-style guide to DeMille and his movies, with the film even padding out the running time with a detour into DeMille’s own Charlton Heston remake. The parting of the seas sequence is always welcome in my house, but it has nowt to do with the sets of The Ten Commandments OG. DeMille is painted as the picaresque character he no doubt was, and we’re duly told about how the idea for The Ten Commandments was the outcome of a newspaper competition for ideas (!- imagine if the modern industry bet the house on the whim of a fanboy! JUST IMAGINE). I did love the unintentionally hilarious performances of Brosnan and his crew putting on voices to recreate DeMille’s legendary conversations (‘Whadda they want me to do? Stop filming and call it The Five Commandments?’ hehehe), but I doubt anyone could give a shit about DeMille’s supposed affairs, and actual backstage footage used to paint him as an on-set tyrant simply only succeeds in making him look like a slightly exasperated primary school teacher when he calmly, and charmingly, calls his crew a ‘bunch of monkeys’ (Christian Bale eat your heart out, ah-da-da-dah!).

THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B DEMILLE

But even this is scant of the calibre of forensic detail or enlightening thesis which subjects of this magnitude rightly deserve. We are told, for instance, that ‘literally tons of grease paint was ordered’, but how many tons?! This stuff is important! Similarly, the influence of the Biblical Epic, which early Hollywood repeatedly returned to, addressing the religious principles of the mass audience while the rest of the art world progressed towards a decadent avant-garde, is glossed over. And, most fatally, The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille’s ostensible narrative - that of a sort of showbiz time team - is similarly overwhelmed. At one point, Brosnan mentions that he chucked it all in to become a Private Investigator who specialises in child abuse cases (!), complete with a slo-mo shot of the man himself walking towards camera: there’s your movie, surely! But this intriguing plot development is never indulged. What drove this peculiar individual, the man who wrote William Lustig’s 1989 Hit List, no less, to pour so many resources into this mad quest? Alas, we may never truly know. At the end, however, (*SPOILER*) the team does manage to excavate an entire sphinx, so yay for them!

The Lost City of Cecil B DeMille is on VOD October 3rd.



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