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  • National Treasure, Global Value, and American Literary Studies
  • Eric Lott (bio)

The hit film National Treasure (2004) opens in Washington, DC in 1974. A young Ben Gates, flashlight in hand, creeps around the attic of his family home. Seizing upon a mysterious book and about to open it, Ben is surprised by his grandfather, John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer), who consents to tell him about the Gates family's investment in—and longtime search for—a treasure of monumental proportions rumored to exist somewhere in the US. As Grandpa tells the tale, his "grandfather's grandfather," Thomas Gates, was in 1832 a stable boy for the sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, a Freemason who, approaching death and unable to communicate a bit of important information to President Andrew Jackson, told his stable boy of a "treasure beyond all imagining," the plunder of centuries of war all across the globe. "Tyrants, pharaohs, emperors, warlords" fought over this ever larger store of treasure until at one point it vanished—only to resurface more than 1,000 years later during the First Crusade, when knights seized it from the Temple of Solomon and brought it back to Europe. Adopting the name the Knights Templar, later to become the Freemasons, they subsequently smuggled it out of Europe in order to keep the treasure out of the hands of kings. Grandpa continues: "War followed. By the time of the American Revolution, the treasure had been hidden again. By then, the Masons included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere," who were determined to ensure the treasure would never fall into the hands of the British. They devised a series of maps and clues to its location of which, by 1832, only one remained, the one given by Charles Carroll to [End Page 108] young Thomas Gates: "The Secret lies with Charlotte." Taking out a one-dollar bill, Grandpa then displays the Masonic symbols that to this day exist on its back: the unfinished pyramid, the all-seeing eye. Masons among our founders are "speaking to us through these," Grandpa says to a rapt young Ben, at which point Ben's father, Patrick (Jon Voight), bursts in: "You mean laughing at us. You know what that dollar represents? The entire Gates family fortune. Six generations of fools, chasing after fool's gold." Retorts Grandpa: "It's not about the money, Patrick. It's never been about the money." Whereupon Grandpa, at Ben's request, mock-knights the boy, conferring upon "Benjamin Franklin Gates" the "duty of the Templars, the Freemasons, and the family Gates."

Cut to a fortyish Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) driving across the Arctic tundra. Along with his British partner Ian (Sean Bean), his techie sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and a team of helpers, Ben has a bead on the "Charlotte" of Charles Carroll's clue. A geographical positioning system indicates that a ship—the Charlotte—is lodged under several feet of snow and ice. Once aboard, the men discover no treasure, only an ornately carved meerschaum pipe that Ben somehow knows is inscribed with text. The text is that of a riddle, their next clue. Once decoded (rather too effortlessly), the riddle indicates the existence of an invisible treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Ian blithely suggests they steal it; Ben swears he won't let Ian do it, a sort of mimic denunciation of British corruption. When Ian threatens to kill Ben, the latter reminds him of his knowledge of further clues and of his decoding expertise. Ian is determined to boost the Declaration; Ben is determined to stop him. The race is on to get to the document and, as it were, reread it.

If there's a better recent allegory of the stakes of American literary study in an age of imperial globalism, I am sure I don't know it. National Treasure conveys an impacted nexus of literary desire, encoding and decoding, generational (not to say oedipal) as well as national conflict in the field of interpretation, dynastic ambition, global capital, and US democracy. Opening in Washington in 1974, the year a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency, the film would seem...


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