June 24th, 2003
A young boy, maybe ten years old, is driving a horse-drawn carriage through the rain-soaked of Washington DC. It is 1832, and the boy is taking Charles Carroll, 96 years of age and the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, to the White House, to see President Andrew Jackson about a matter of urgency. Carroll dies before the President can make it outside, but before the old man passes on, he tells the young boy, Thomas Gates, about a great treasure. A grand treasure amassed throughout the ages. From the pyramids of Egypt two thousand years before the birth of Christ, through the Roman Empire and The Crusades, brought to the New World over five hundreds years ago. A treasure whose sole clue lies in one word. Charlotte. Thus begins what will become a family curse, as generation after generation of Gates males search for Charlotte and the secret treasure.
The story above is told to a ten year old boy, Ben Gates, by his grandfather John, one day during a visit to the rest home the old man lives in. Ben’s father, Patrick, has tried his best to stop the madness, but what is stronger than the bond between grandfather and grandson when it comes to tales of high adventure and treasure?
Ben grows up to be an adventurer himself. Naturally, Ben will go farther than anyone else in his family ever had before. During an expedition financed by a very rich, and thus not quite trustworthy, British gentleman who is also seeking the same treasure, Ben discovers what Charlotte is. This, naturally, leads to another clue and another mystery to be solved. At every step, one clue solved becomes another needing deciphering. And so it goes, and so it goes.
This is the basis for “National Treasure,” the upcoming inevitable Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer/Nicolas Cage blockbuster, currently scheduled to invade motion picture houses in November of 2004. Predestined indeed, as the three previous films from this trio, “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Gone In 60 Seconds,” have a combined worldwide gross of nearly $750 million. When you’re dealing with forces like that, who needs a script that makes sense? It’s a wonder how this script spent more than half a decade in development before finally earning a green light.
About this treasure. You think the Ark of the Covenant was the ultimate treasure? Or maybe the Holy Grail? Forget that. In “National Treasure,” the mother of all hunts revolves around this horde that’s been building for four thousand years. You name it, this bounty’s got it. Gold from the Temple of Solomon? King Alaric II's ransom of the Athenians? The entire wealth of 5th century Rome? The Sword of Alexander the Great? Check, check, check and double check. About the only things missing from this loot are the Heart of the Ocean diamond and anything Dr. Indiana Jones didn’t already recover himself.
In fact, the comparisons between the first in the much-beloved Spielberg/Lucas series and this new film are plentiful and hard to ignore. Indiana Jones had a doctorate in archaeology. Ben Gates has a Ph. D in history. Indiana Jones had a female partner-cum-love interest in Marion Ravenwood, a beautiful, intelligent, independent-minded twentysomething woman. Ben Gates has a female partner-cum-love interest in Dr. Abigail Chase, a beautiful, intelligent, independent-minded twentysomething woman. At a perilous moment within an Egyptian crypt, a torch flickers out on Marion. At a perilous moment within a frozen, semi-capsized ship, a torch flickers out on Ben. Dr. Jones’s main adversary was a rich Frenchman who wants the treasure for himself, who leaves Jones trapped to die in a tomb with only one conceivable way out, straight up, without a rope . Ben’s main adversary is a rich Englishman who wants the treasure for himself, who leaves Ben trapped to die in an ice cave with only one conceivable way out, straight up, without a rope. There are many more similarities that I’ll leave unsaid.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a hard act to live up to. Like the NFL and Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, many have tried to emulate the Indiana Jones playbook, most meeting with utter and complete failure. Perhaps setting the adventures in the modern day, without the extended costs of creating a period piece, is one way for “National Treasure” to escape the Indiana Jones curse. At least, with Disney and Bruckheimer in control, it won’t suffer the same budgetary limitations that plagued the likes of Cannon’s ham-fisted Allan Quartermain series.
One small advantage “National Treasure” does have is that it’s major set-piece, the breaking into the Rotunda in the National Archives to steal the Declaration of Independence, which purportedly has a map to the treasure on the back in invisible ink, is not the climax or the main focus of the film, but the transition from the first to second act. If anything good can come from the making of this movie, it’s that it could spark an interest in American history to a new generation of people. With visits to Washington DC, the Ben Franklin Museum and the Liberty Bell Pavilion in Philadelphia, plus the USS Intrepid and Trinity Church in New York, “National Treasure” has just enough of one foot in the past to make kids think history might be interesting. Of course, the film also condones crimes of high treason, but hopefully those parts will go over the heads of impressionable children.
If Bruckheimer, Cage and producer/director Jon Turteltaub (from whose idea this film originates) are wise men, they would get rid of the dozen or so references to defecation and where that kind of stuff comes from within the script. Without Harry Potter or hobbits or cats in hats next fall or winter, “National Treasure” could corner the family demographic if they so decided to go the PG route.
I’m going to give this screenplay a C grade, simply because it just has too much of that deja-vu, been there and seen that feeling for my tastes, but I can also see the film being quite entertaining, as long as you allow yourself to enjoy the ride.
One final point of order, to prove my own obsession for detail… could something like “National Treasure” happen today? No, not today, the day I write this review. The Declaration of Independence was removed from the Rotunda in the National Archives Building in the summer of 2001 and remanded to a secret location for a restoration, as the iron-based ink with which the document was written with was causing single letters and, in extreme cases entire sentences, to slip around. The Rotunda will not reopen to the public until mid-September 2003, so no, it could not happen today, for you first wave of readers seeing this review in the summer of 2003. But it could by the time the film finishes production at the end of the year.
”National Treasure” Scorecard
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Jon Turteltaub
Executive Producers: Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Christina Steinberg, Barry Waldman, Oren Aviv, Charles Segars
Writers: Jon Turteltaub, E. Max Frye, Jim Kouf, Maryanne & Cormack Wibberley
Casting Director: Avy Kaufman
Production Start Date: Mid August 2003
Production Locations: Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles
US Distributor: Buena Vista
My rating: C
Screenplay draft dated April 9, 2003
Current draft by the Willerby's. Previous drafts by Jim Kouf, E. Max Frye and Jon Turteltaub