The first time Cecil B. DeMille parted the waters of the Red Sea, to film the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, he did it at Seal Beach, CA, just 30 miles down the Pacific coast from Santa Monica. Three decades later, when Paramount Pictures decided to remake the Old Testament tale in Technicolor and VistaVision, the same director returned to do it again, only this time on location on the Sinai Peninsula with thousands of extras provided by the Egyptian army — no matter that the country’s military was rather busy with urgent geopolitical matters at the time. Both versions were massive hits, with the remake serving as the capper to DeMille’s illustrious career.
Of course he didn’t know it at the time, but novelist Peter Blauner was introduced to a significant part of his future when, at age 6, he saw DeMille’s 1956 blockbuster for the first time. Notable memories implanted at that age rarely vanish entirely — and so it was for Blauner, who used his lifelong fascination for this Technicolor celebration of God’s will in action as inspiration for a shrewd and impressively detailed novel. Even though Picture in the Sand technically is fiction, the book was more intensively researched than many nonfiction works and emerges as a shrewd and revelatory portrait of an enormous American movie being made on location at a time of major intrigue and tumult in the Middle East.
The New York-based Blauner started his career as a journalist, first as an assistant to Pete Hamill in the early 1980s and then for a decade as an ace reporter specializing in crime and politics for New York magazine. He somehow also found the time to write nine novels, including the Edgar Award-winning Slow Motion Riot, before becoming a staff writer, and then a co-executive producer for three of the Law & Order franchises most recently on Blue Bloods.
What did not come so smoothly was birthing his just-published book. Blauner traces its origins back to that first experience with The Ten Commandments, particularly when Charlton Heston’s Moses sternly demanded of Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”
In the aftermath of World War II, quite a few Hollywood productions started being made, at least in part, on the African continent; among them were such hits as King Solomon’s Mines, which was shot in Uganda, the Belgian Congo and Kenya and was MGM’s biggest moneymaker of 1950; John Huston’s 1951 The African Queen, with Bogie and Hepburn on location in Uganda and the Congo; and the Hemingway adaptation The Snows of Kilimanjaro, filmed in Kenya and Cairo and the third biggest hit of 1952. That same year came Mogambo, a made-up alteration of Hollywood’s famous Mocambo nightclub starring the dazzling trio of Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, which filmed for six weeks in the French Congo, Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda.
DeMille, whose silent version of The Ten Commandments had been the biggest moneymaker of 1923, initially courted King Farouk and received a go-ahead to shoot in Egypt. But soon thereafter, the playboy leader was deposed, sent into Monaco exile and replaced by a theocracy shortly before filming was due to commence. The film’s status remained in limbo for some time until DeMille promised to make a documentary about how Egypt “was a bastion of civilization.” However, the resulting 11-minute short never was shown anywhere, Blauner said, because of the Suez crisis and the film’s assurance that “Egypt was emerging as a ‘land of liberty.’”
Despite the great uncertainty as to where things were going politically in Egypt, DeMille pushed ahead, and Blauner has done an outstanding job of describing the fluctuating political atmosphere in Egypt at this crucial time during which various political factions, from devout Muslims to Western-style playboys, jockeyed for position in the nation’s uncertain future.
Blauner ended up going to Egypt six times for research and during the course of these visits, “I interviewed everyone,” the writer said, “including many who wrote diaries as well as the man who founded the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” In the end, Blauner spoke with more than 100 people, and it shows in the incredible detail the author has packed into his absorbing book. We learn that, despite all the political turmoil and power shifts, which included King Farouk being deposed and the Brotherhood’s attempted assassination of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, DeMille nonetheless won the right to shoot at the actual pyramids and also was given 200 cavalry officers and the use of 20 planes.
On his visits, Blauner stayed at the fabled Mena House, which overlooks the pyramids and was where both DeMille and, a couple of years later, Howard Hawks resided when he shot part of his ill-fated, non-religious epic Land of the Pharaohs.
It took years for Blauner to research and more time to work out his choice of narrative mode for the novel. It’s a shrewd one that relies on the discreet long-distance relationship between the central character, a now-aged movie enthusiast whose political activities led him to be jailed and sometimes tortured, and his curious grandson, with whom he maintains a peculiar but illuminating correspondence. In the end, this is a politically fascinating saga that bulges with vividly drawn characters and acute attention to the ever-shifting sands of events in the Middle East. And who knows, perhaps one day this story could even become a movie itself.
© 2023 PMC. All rights reserved.