All the King's Men
The Great Raid
Kingdom of Heaven
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Passion of the Christ
Pirates of the Caribbean
Pride and Prejudice
Walk the Line
There's actually a lot of real history referenced in National Treasure.
But there's also a whole lot of hooey.
But it's such fun hooey that I didn't mind. Nor, I think, will
most history buffs. For despite lots of factual silliness, National
Treasure ultimately is a celebration of our passion--individual
and shared--for history. The film's two heroes (Nicolas Cage and
Diane Kruger) are unabashed history geeks, whose extensive knowledge
solves the secret clues, thus driving the story. The movie itself
careens joyously from one historical site to the next--the National
Archives, Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, New York City's Trinity
Church. And how perfect is it to have a British villain in a story
about a threatened Declaration of Independence?
But if you want to keep the facts separate from the fiction in
National Treasure, this guide may help.
Q. Does this film uncover an actual Freemason conspiracy?
A. It's amazing how popular conspiracy theories remain. Try googling
"conspiracy" in the Internet sometime and check out some
of the resulting 8,130,000 hits. Secret societies like the Freemasons
especially lend themselves to conspiratorial speculation. Surely
their secrecy hides something sinister--a massive cover-up, perhaps?
Hidden knowledge? Or maybe a little plan for world domination?
But though National Treasure showcases a Freemason conspiracy of
sorts, it's not a bad conspiracy at all. Yes, there's a treasure,
and yes, it's been hidden by the Freemasons for centuries, but not,
mind you, for any nefarious purpose. It was all done for the good
of the people. Really.
Q. Who were the Freemasons, anyway?
A. Stone carvers who worked on cathedrals and castles in the Middle
Ages. Highly skilled and sought after during the golden age of cathedral
building, freemasons (so- called because they carved soft, or 'free'
stone for cathedrals' facades) could demand high wages. This annoyed
the nobility, who didn't want anyone who worked for a living to
get too uppity, so they passed laws setting a low maximum wage for
masons. Undeterred, masons in England and elsewhere finagled their
high pay anyway, by organizing into illegal--and hence highly secretive--trade
By 1700, the Freemasons had changed, (historians aren't sure why)
becoming a group that admitted elite gentlemen and professionals
as well as masons. They had also become known for espousing religious
tolerance (unusual during that time of religious warfare) and a
kind of simple deism, soon to be popularized in the Enlightenment.
But their reputation for ritualistic secrecy had continued, and
legends grew about the esoteric, secret knowledge which Freemasons
supposedly possessed, given directly (they said) from God, who after
all, was a mason. Hadn't he made the world in six days and nights?
Q. Was Freemason influence strong among the Founding Fathers?
A. Yes and no. Freemasonry attracted many colonial elite, probably
because it was chic, secretive, and meshed nicely with popular Enlightenment
beliefs. John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington
were all Masons, as were about a third of the signers of the Constitution.
Does that mean anything? Countless websites argue that it does,
but it seems to me a fairly logical overlap. Freemasonry during
that time attracted wealthy and intellectual men, the same kind
of men who constituted the leadership of the American Revolution.
Q. Checking out the bills in my wallet, there is a lot of peculiar
imagery there. Couldn't that be evidence of Masonic influence?
A. If nothing else, this film is going to get a lot of people looking
at their money more carefully. The back of the dollar bill shows
the Great Seal of the U.S., featuring an unfinished pyramid, with
the 'all-seeing eye' above it. Both are commonly thought of as Masonic
symbols. And Ben Franklin-a Mason-was on the original design team
for the Great Seal.
The plot thickens, then, eh? Not really. One problem with the film's
theory about the bills revealing 'clues' left by Ben Franklin and
others, is that the federal government didn't even issue paper currency
until the Civil War. Before that, paper currency was unregulated,
issuing from individual banks.
As for the Great Seal? I hate to tell the conspiracy theorists,
but Franklin's initial draft for it wasn't used. The final version
was created by a later group, composed entirely of non-Masons. As
for the imagery of the eye and the pyramid, both were popular symbols
at the time, common to other groups beside the Masons.
Q. What about this fabled treasure that Freemasons supposedly
A. The idea of an ancient treasure taken from Solomon's temple has
floated around for centuries, though few--if any--reputable historians
buy it. As the story goes, the Knights Templar, a military group
created by the Pope during the Crusades, stumbled upon fabulous
riches in the ruins of Solomon's temple. Keeping it secret, they
smuggled it back into Europe and hid it.
But unfortunately for the Knights Templar, the Pope got peeved
at them (long story) and sent the Spanish Inquisition after them,
which effectively destroyed the order.
But did it? Some Masonic accounts (and this film) suggest the Knights
Templar went underground, found refuge in Scotland, and eventually
morphed into the Scottish Freemasons. Then, years before Columbus
managed the trick, they sailed to the New World with their massive
treasure. And buried it. In an island near Nova Scotia, to be precise.
Q. So, you don't think there's a secret map hidden on the back
of the Declaration of Independence, then?
A. Nope. Absolutely not.
Not so sure about the Constitution, though.
(By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D. This story appears in
the Dayton Daily News, November
19, 2004, and the Joliet Herald News, November 21, 2004,
sec. F, p.1)
History geeks as swashbuckling
Sean Bean. Gotta have a British villain,