The Case of National Treasure

Since we’re feeling adventurous this month, we’re welcoming yet another guest to talk about one of his favorite movies! You might remember him from our AYAOTD episode last October. He’s our good friend and fellow podcaster, JD Gravatte! 

We’re really excited to have JD on the show today. He was the one that suggested this episode, and we thought it could be super fun to have him join us as we learned all about it!

It was 2004, a day much like this (but not really; it was considerably colder), that National Treasure premiered. Opening to mixed and negative critical reviews (the film has an original Rotten Tomatoes score of 46%), National Treasure seemed to hold the key to viewers’ hearts. The movie was impossibly fun, with a stellar cast that perfectly displayed the sense of excitement and adventure needed to pull off such a wacky concept. After all, only Nicolas Cage could stoically deliver the line: “I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence,” and have anyone take him seriously. 

National Treasure is equal parts ridiculous and masterful, making it a perfect family film on a rainy afternoon. So, friends, it’s time to learn all about National Treasure, a film that features a national treasure stealing a national treasure to uncover a national treasure! 

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE 

  • This film would certainly not be National Treasure without The Declaration of Independence. So before we follow the clues to the history of this movie, we’re going to talk about the document’s history. 
  • The Declaration of Independence is on permanent display in the National Archives with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It has been on display there since 1952. 
  • Thomas Jefferson’s original draft was called “A Declaration of the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” After much deliberation and several edits to his work, the document was renamed “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” 
    • One notable change was an omission of Jefferson’s claim that King George was responsible for the slave trade. Many of the founding fathers owned slaves when Jefferson drafted the document, and including this accusation would have been hypocritical. 
  • Congress approved the final version on July 4th, 1776. It was recorded by the clerk Timothy Matlack in iron gall ink on parchment paper. Like they say in the film, parchment is made from stretched and treated animal skin and was commonly used for important documents. 
  • Before congress signed the document, John Dunlap produced about 200 copies. Only 26 copies remain today, and only one final copy with all the signatures exists. This version is known as the engrossed copy, which is the one on display.  
  • It’s a common misconception that the Declaration was signed on July 4th, when in actuality, most members of congress began signing the document on August 2nd, 1776. Some members that signed their names were not present when the document was approved.
  • The document is now 245 years old, and its black ink has faded to brown. The best way to preserve it would be to store it in a dark room, but it remains on display because of how important it is that everyone sees it. 

SYNOPSIS

  • Ben Gates grew up listening to his Grandfather’s stories of a legendary treasure brought over to America by the Freemasons. As an adult, Ben has become a historian and treasure hunter. He and his friend Riley team up with the British adventurer Ian Howe who is also searching for the famed treasure. The hunt seemingly ends when the group discovers that the map to the treasure is on the back of the most famous document in American history. When Ben refuses to let Ian steal it, he turns on Riley and Ben. The two men decide they must take action, concluding that to save the Declaration of Independence, they must steal it.

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • In the 1990s, producer, and writer Oren Aviv came to director Jon Turteltaub with an exciting idea for a film: what if someone wanted to steal The Declaration of Independence? Turteltaub was a big fan of adventure films, especially capers, and met with producer Jerry Bruckheimer about the idea. Together, they felt they could make the idea work on screen. 
    • Writers Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv, and Charles Segars worked on the story, which would change hands a few different times over the years. One of the story’s most significant influences was Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Throughout story development, screenwriters Jim Kouf, Cormac, and Marianne Wibberley addressed various scripting issues. The film was initially scheduled for release in 2000, and because of the delay, the heist portion needed re-working. When the story was in its earlier stages, security for The Declaration of Independence had not been updated since the 1950s, meaning that stealing it would not have been that difficult. However, the events of 9/11 intensified security around the document. 
    • The writers wanted to approach a classic treasure hunt from a different perspective. Usually, the bulk of the adventure happens as the characters hunt for gold. This film dedicates more screen time to securing the map than the actual treasure. 
    • Screenwriters and filmmakers consulted heist specialists that would give insight into how they would steal the Declaration. They used this information to craft a plan that was believable enough for the film. 
    • In the film, the biggest key to Ben Gate’s plan is to steal the Declaration from the preservation room, where there is less protection. This storyline was a little too realistic, and the preservation process changed after the film was released, so no one got any brilliant ideas about stealing it for real. 
  • Directed by Jon Turteltaub, National Treasure was shot over six months, mostly on location. Filming included shots in front of the National Archives, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Independence Hall, and The Library of Congress. The team wanted a realistic touch, which added a historical weight to the story. For example, there’s a scene where characters Ben, Riley, and Abigail bring the Declaration to the signing room in Independence Hall. Ben exclaims, “the last time this was here, it was being signed.” That might actually be true if they were holding the actual Declaration. 
    • In the scene where Abigail (Diane Kruger) confronts Ben (Nicolas Cage) during the Gala, the camera shows her walking across Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol Building behind her. The crew shut down the entire street for the scene. 
    • The film crew was not permitted to film in the actual National Archives, meaning the production crew had to build a replica. It was accurate down to the inch. 
      • Of course, the declaration prop is a replica as well. Designers made it from paper and not animal skin. The crew was given photos of the front and back of the actual document for reference.
  • Production Designers Paul Cross and Norris Spencer had two major issues to resolve. One of these was creating fictional spaces and making them fit into a film filled with realistic locations. The other was building the catacombs, which we see during the film’s climax.
    • One of the early scenes in the film was shot on location in Utah. It involved a major explosion on the icy landscape that involved 600 gallons of gasoline and real gunpowder (Justin Bartha, who played Riley, actually caught fire.) This scene also involved the interior of The Charlotte, an excavated ship. This set was located inside a freezer so that the actors would have red faces and visible breath. 
    • Holy Trinity Church is a real location that does have a crypt. The team was able to go and see it for themselves. To create realistic catacombs underneath the church, they visited many Masonic temples for reference. 
  • The Santa Monica California VFX team of Asylum worked on the computer-generated visual effects for the film. They worked on 350 shots in the movie. Their most extensive sequences were the scenes that showed how the Declaration was kept safe, the dangerous shaft beneath Trinity Church, and the treasure room at the end of the film. 
    • After our main cast discovers a tunnel in the tomb beneath Trinity Church, they follow it to a complicated system of stairs, bridges, and elevators. Although the production team created a massive set, CGI made the shaft appear bottomless. It also added touches that made the danger feel as authentic as possible. 
    • When our heroes finally discover the treasure, Ben (Nicolas Cage) lights a trough that reveals a deep cavern of unbelievable wonders. The SFX team combined over 100 elements to bring this scene to life, including a miniature of the treasure room, shot at ⅙ scale. 
  • Some of us might roll our eyes when talking about the historical accuracy of a Disney adventure film. Still, the creative forces behind this movie wanted it to be as true to history as possible. In many ways, they succeeded. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was a driving force for the realism of the film. 
    • One real-world element of the film is the concept of treasure hunting. Of course, some real people have dedicated their lives to finding treasure. For example, Mel Fisher was a treasure hunter known for discovering the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a famed Spanish treasure galleon. 
    • But what about the other pieces of the film? The connection between the founding fathers and the freemasons is true. Freemasons date back to medieval times, making it the oldest fraternal organization in existence. George Washington was the head of the masons in the New World, and nearly half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were masons. They’re not exactly a secret organization, though they do have secret rituals, and their symbols do appear on American currency, as the film suggests. 
    • The film also references the Knights Templar, formed in Jerusalem in 1118 CE to protect Christian pilgrims after the First Crusade. Legend has it that the knights uncovered a treasure beneath King Soloman’s temple and slowly transported it back to Europe over 200 years. Actor Christopher Plummer details this story at the beginning of the movie.  
      • Afraid that the group was becoming too powerful, the King of France ordered many knights to be captured, tortured, or executed. Many escaped to Scotland and joined Masonic Lodges. Some believe they held treasure at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland.
      • National Treasure suggests that this treasure was brought to the US, giving us the film’s premise. 
    • Many other historical facts rattled off by our lead character are true. At the beginning of the film, the characters come across a clue that states 55 people signed The Declaration of Independence. Fifty-six people signed the document, but the last person did it in 1781, which would be after the clue was written. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to add a scene that explained this, but it didn’t fit into the final cut. As a result, many audience members took the line to be a mistake. 
    • One of the less realistic moments of the film is the Gala held at the National Archives. Generally, no food or drink is permitted around such essential documents. 
    • Now, of course, the treasure itself at the end of the film is fictional…or at least their version of it is. But the story itself relies on American history, which is impressive. 

THE MUSIC

  • Trevor Rabin scored this film with a beautiful blend of orchestral and rock influences. His father was a first-chair violinist for the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and his mother was a talented classical pianist. Trevor himself became a big rock star in his own right. The director Jon Turtletaub said that the rock sound was perfect for the chase scene. Trevor is also known for scoring Remember the Titans.

STARRING

  • Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates
    • National Treasure was Nicolas Cage’s fourth film with Jerry Bruckheimer. He was concerned that many of his lines would not come off naturally, as he was often rattling off memorized facts. He reportedly asked for the “greatest actor ever” to play his father. The role of Patrick Gates went to John Voigt. 
    • Voigt noted that Cage liked to be silly on set, keeping up creative energy. He was excited to do the role and be in all the historical locations. Cage was also known to ad-lib a lot of his lines. 
    • The writers never wanted Cage’s character, Ben, to carry a gun. He needed to seem resourceful and be a direct foil to the antagonist.  
  • Diane Kruger as Abigail Chase
    • When Kruger did a screen test with Cage, he seemed a little off his game. She brought the kind of dynamic that they were looking for, and she got the part.
    • Kruger also did a lot of her own stunt work, including a scene where she hangs off the back of a van. She said she was so sore from the scene; she had to take a week off from filming.  
    • She also appeared in Inglorious Bastards
  • Justin Bartha as Riley Poole
    • When test audiences saw the film, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Bartha’s scenes. So, the editors went back through the footage and added more of his character to the film. 
    • Bartha felt like audiences resonated with his character because he represents the everyday person in these impossible situations. 
    • Bartha also appeared in The Hangover.
  • Sean Bean as Ian Howe
    • Sean Bean has been in many other projects, like Game of Thrones and Wolfwalkers. But, he doesn’t die in this film, despite the joke that his character always dies. 
  • Jon Voight as Patrick Gates
    • Voight joined the production later than the other actors. He was initially going to turn down the role, but when he told Jerry Bruckheimer how he would have played Patrick Gates, they knew they couldn’t cast anyone else. 
    • Jon Turteltaub remarked that Voigt is incredible with character acting. 

RECEPTION

  • National Treasure opened on November 19th, 2004, to mixed reviews. Audiences, however, disagreed, and the film swiftly became a treasure because it stayed at the top of the box office for at least three weeks straight; ahead of Christmas with the Kranks, The Polar Express, and The Incredibles.
  • In 2007, Disney released National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. This film received an even worse critical reception but made over 100 million dollars more than the first film. 
  • Over the years, there have been whispers of a third installment to the franchise, but it seems the studio has been dragging its feet. In an interview with Collider, Jon Turteltaub said, “The script was close, but not so great that the studio [could] say yes. But it’s been good enough that the studio could have said, ‘Yes, keep going. Get closer.'”
    • Even after all this time, there are still firm hopes that a third movie is on the way. Looper posits that it will release in late 2022 or early 2023!

FUN FACTS

  • The film’s first cut was almost four hours long, including a deleted scene where Riley and Abigail run through an empty strip club in the afternoon. According to Turteltaub, most Jerry Bruckheimer films include a strip club at some point. But, the scene was eventually cut. 
  • Many have scoffed at the chemistry in the film, like when Ben and Abigail use lemon juice to uncover invisible ink. In the audio commentary, Jon Turteltaub and Justin Bartha were adamant that this would work. 
  • In the film, the characters uncover a set of glasses that reveal another hidden message on the map. The actors had to stare at a blank piece of paper for these scenes and pretend they saw something extraordinary. 
  • Eddie Yansick was Nic Cage’s stunt double. In one scene, when Cage seemingly jumped into the Hudson River, the crew threw sandbags into the water to make the splash. When he jumped in Cage’s place, Yansick was hooked up to a decelerator and yanked backward before entering the water. Later on, the antagonist, Ian, has a line wondering how Ben survived the fall without any injuries. This may have been a nod to the fact that he likely would have died if he made the jump in real life. 
  • Much like The Goonies, some of the close-up hand shots were not the hands of the main actors. In one shot, the hands were director Jon Turteltaub’s hands!


National Treasure may not be a groundbreaking film, but it achieves what it set out to do. This movie is entertaining from start to finish. It has an exciting premise, a likable leading man, several thrilling chase scenes, and honest connections between characters. National Treasure is the kind of movie you’d take your kids to see at the dollar theatre on a hot day or throw on the TV when you’re stuck inside from the rain or the snow or the heat. No matter how snobby or highfalutin our taste in cinema may be, there will always be a need for movies like this one. These films allow us to turn off our cynicism for a couple of hours and imagine something as unbelievable as stealing one of the most famous documents in American history and using it to find buried treasure. If you let them, silly movies like this can make you feel like anything is possible, and that is a treasure all by itself.

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, and Carlos!

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