History in the Movies

"National Treasure" has a great deal of history referenced in it, but also a whole lot of hooey.

National Treasure

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 a Freemason conspiracy?

A. It’s amazing how popular conspiracy theories remain. Try googling “conspiracy” on 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 Free-masons, 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 organizations.

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 that 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 Web sites 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, issued 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 had?

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.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis, in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site, www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies