History in the Movies


‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets’

There’s a charming reverence for history in ‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets.’ Sure, there’s a hidden treasure that everyone’s chasing. But the real prize is a place in history. Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) simply wants to salvage his ancestor’s slandered reputation for the history books. The bad guy (Ed Harris) just hopes to get into them.

Every character here is a history geek. Ancient artifacts are more valued than gold. Lincoln is reverently quoted. And even the president in a scene during which he’s kidnapped by an affable Gates (stay with me, here) proudly notes he majored in historical architecture in college.

So, no matter how crazy the plot gets (pretty crazy) or how strained the historical allusions (very strained), that reverence reinforces the film’s message: history is valuable, in and of itself.

And, hey, it can also lead you to some pretty cool buried treasure.

For the curious among you, here are answers to some historical questions raised by the film.

Q. Are there really missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary?

A. Yes. Eighteen pages are lost from Booth’s diary. They’ve never been found, and no one knows who tore them out. Was it Booth himself? The detective who found the diary on Booth after he was killed? Or maybe it was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had the diary in his possession for two years?

One thing’s for certain. It definitely wasn’t Thomas Gates, the fictional ancestor of our fictional hero.

Q. Was Booth part of the Knights of the Golden Circle?

A. It sounds made up, but the Knights of the Golden Circle did exist, and Booth may well have been a member. A secret organization of Southern sympathizers, the Knights of the Golden Circle got their name from a cockeyed plan to annex territory in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico as Southern states, thus creating a “golden circle” of pro-slavery territory. Needless to say, it never happened.

Q. Did Queen Victoria actively try to help the Confederates?

A. That part’s a bit farfetched. It’s true that many British were Southern sympathizers. Also, England’s lucrative textile industry suffered from having their supply of Southern cotton cut off by the Union blockade.

But any British sentiment to aid the Confederacy was tempered by strong British opposition to slavery, a position shared by Queen Victoria, who had reportedly wept over the slaves’ plight in the novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And once the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made clear that a Union win would spell the end of slavery, British support for the South waned.

Q. Do the Resolute desks exist?

A. They do. As the film mentions, twin desks were carved from the timbers of the British ship, Resolute. Queen Victoria kept one, and sent the other as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879. Since then, almost every president has used the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.

Which brings up a wee plot problem. Not to quibble, but why would Victoria have hidden secret messages to the Confederacy in a desk she gave away in 1879, 14 years after the Confederacy ended?

Q. Is there a Secret Book, kept only for the President’s viewing?

A. It’s an urban legend that refuses to die-that somewhere there exists a top-secret book, containing the truth of every conspiracy ever chattered about on the Internet: Area 51, the moon landing, JFK’s assassination …

But, come on. If the book did exist, wouldn’t nosy reporters have pried information on it from someone, sometime at the White House? Secrets haven’t been kept terribly well there over the years. Remember Monica Lewinsky?

Q. What does Cibola refer to?

A. Cibola was one of the fabled Lost Cities of Gold, rumored to be somewhere in the New World. The Spanish spent a great deal of energy looking for it in the 16th century. Coronado and others wandered around the Southwest and Florida asking Native Americans the location of a great city of gold. Indians usually nodded sagely, then pointed them a bit further down the road. Probably a savvy strategy to get rid of bothersome Spaniards.

Q. Was Mount Rushmore actually built to conceal the existence of a fabulous treasure?

A. Do I need to answer this one?

For the record, I can safely say that Mount Rushmore does not have a lost city of gold hidden somewhere behind its rock faces. Nor, remembering the first “National Treasure” film, is there a treasure trove located beneath Trinity Church in New York City.

I have to admit, though, that Nicolas Cage is making me question whether I’m wasting my history degree. I mean, yeah, history is valuable in and of itself, of course. But right now? I’m off to find me a treasure map.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films. You can reach her at cschultz@stfrancis.edu