When Cecil B. DeMille Went Way Over Budget

The costs were mounting even before DeMille arrived in Guadalupe to begin shooting. Preproduction expenses were already approaching $700,000—an astronomical sum in the early days of Hollywood. More than a million pounds of statuary, concrete, and plaster were used to construct the 120-foot-tall, 800-foot-long temple and surrounding structures, and whole plaster sphinxes were sculpted and loaded onto trucks bound for the dunes. Every day on location meant feeding and housing the thousands of workers and animals. DeMille drove his construction team to work faster. Paramount Studios, the film’s backer, began sending DeMille increasingly desperate letters demanding that he cut costs. One receipt, for $3,000 spent on a “magnificent team of horses” for the pharaoh, pushed the studio over the edge, according to Sumiko Higashi, a professor emeritus at The College at Brockport, SUNY, and author of Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: the Silent Era, a biography of DeMille.

“You have lost your mind,” telegraphed Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures. “Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.” DeMille refused. He took out a personal loan and waived his guaranteed percentage of the movie’s gross to ensure the production continued. “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick,” he wired back to the studio. “What do they want me to do?” he was rumored to have said, according to Higashi. “Stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?”

—David Ferry, writing in Outside about the extravagant faux-Egyptian set built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film The Ten Commandments. DeMille’s set—the biggest, most expensive one ever built at the time—was later buried beneath sand dunes on California’s Central Coast. The decades-long quest to unearth it, which Ferry covers in his story, is its own epic.

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