Faith Is the RealForgotten Message Of the Declaration
The worst moments of Disney's new action picture, National Treasure, come at the very beginning and the very end.
The film opens with the young Benjamin Franklin Gates learning from his grandfather (played by Christopher Plummer) about the family obsession: a secret passed down from an ancestor who served as Charles Carroll of Carrollton's coachman. We see a dying Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, rushing to the White House to tell Andrew Jackson that the Founding Fathers had hidden the legendary treasure of the Knights Templar.
Not finding Jackson at home, Carroll spills the beans to the coachman, an indiscretion that ultimately spurs the grown-up Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) to steal the declaration.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the Dan Brown approach to history would eventually be applied to the American Revolution. A flashback introduces us to the usual cast of characters, who apparently wandered off the Da Vinci Code set: pharaohs, Templars, freemasons.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere are correctly identified as masons; Charles Carroll, too, incorrectly. Having looked at many sources on Carroll's life, I have never run across the claim that Carroll was a mason.
Maybe the filmmakers confused him with his cousin Daniel Carroll II, indeed a mason, or perhaps they thought nobody would care if they took liberties with the truth about a long-dead politician.
Disney might not know that the charge of masonic membership would cast doubt on the sincerity of the signer's Catholic faith, or it might not care. In a pluralistic society, artists should have the liberty to create whatever characters they find in their imaginations; but when they borrow the names of specific persons or organizations, even creative people must be bound by the essential truth of history.
The filmmakers never raise the question of how the Founding Fathers got hold of the Templars' treasure. Presumably, their masonic buddies in Europe gave them the loot to help them fight the Revolutionary War. If so, one must wonder why they buried it in a hole in the ground instead of spending it on the war, when the continental paper money was worthless and Franklin himself was moving heaven and earth to obtain money from France. Financial mastermind Alexander Hamilton must be spinning in his grave in Trinity Churchyard (which plays a prominent role in the story).
Which leads to the ending. I won't reveal what happens but will just mention one possible ending, as I would have written it, which doesn't come to pass.
In my version, Cage and company follow the clues and find the treasure room only to find it empty because the founders spent the money obtaining American freedom, a real “national treasure.” End of story. But, of course, I'm writing articles instead of big-budget action screenplays.
I must confess that I liked almost everything between the beginning and the end of National Treasure more than I probably should have. Fortunately, the screenwriters do not take the Templar theme as seriously as Brown and his disciples do — it merely serves as an excuse for a lively treasure hunt.
The fine cast, which includes stunning Diane Kruger, the endearing Justin Bartha and a scary Sean Bean, manages to enliven some very mediocre dialogue. Once one suspends disbelief in the preposterous story line, the narrative flows in a brilliantly cinematic style. Film editor William Goldenberg deserves an Oscar for his creativity.
Although National Treasure pleases as a thriller, it is depressing to see all this talent thrown away on an essentially false view of history and society. The public longs for heroism and mystery (in the film, the young Ben expresses this in his eager question, “Are we knights?”) But the filmmakers waste this impulse on Da Vinci-style nonsense. Cage's postmodern and vaguely paranoid Ben drinks a toast to the “high treason” of the Founding Fathers. But the founders were not nihilistic “rebels without a cause.” They struggled to establish a just and stable society in a vacuum of real authority.
Ben's favorite passage in the Declaration of Independence argues that when people find themselves under “despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.”
Taken out of context, this sentence would be a recipe for anarchy. It makes sense only in the light of Jefferson's argument about the “Laws of Nature and of Nature's God.” The new American society was meant to conform to the decrees of a divine personal Lawgiver in whom the great majority of founders believed, whether they were masons or not.
Thus, from the point of view of the Catholic historian, Ben Gates' fight for recognition by an “arrogant historical community” is ironic.
It's not secularists such as Ben who are spurned by professional historians. Rather, those who see the founding for what it was, the first attempt to create a government explicitly based on the principles of natural law, are the ones denied a fair hearing. But the real “national treasure” is not a mythical hoard of antique gold. It is the natural law as described in the Christian tradition and in the declaration, still the foundation of our society and clearly legible on American hearts.
Scott McDermott's biography, Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary, is currently available at www.scepterpublishers.org.
- December 5-11, 2004