It seems befitting the Fourth of July to write about American myth-making. By ‘myth’, I do not mean something false, but the narrative vehicle for what is held as valuable and meaningful. Myths are, therefore, ‘true’ rather than ‘accurate’ representations of reality (not that I believe reality can be apprehended let alone represented accurately…). National myth-making is an exercise in selective memory that uses the past to give meaning to the present and envision a direction for the future. Alas, it is often mired by ignorance, xenophobia, resentment or arrogance, but these sentiments are not inherent in national myth-making. National Treasure is a great example of a very optimistic national myth-making. It’s American through and through. It’s also a cringing action film, but fun.
Civil or Political Religion: civil religion has a long history and profoundly different forms. The public religion of ancient Rome or Athens has nothing to do with American political religion. The late Robert Bellah conceived American civil religion “not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged. I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not.” (see article here). In contrast, historian Emilio Gentile understands political religion as the worship of the nation (see here). He has written on Fascist Italy, but also the United States.
I concur with Gentile that politics, especially national institutions, are often invested with sacredness (See my article on Sacralisation – the role of individual actors in legitimising religion). National Treasure sacralises American institutions following a well-established narrative structure of the true hero understanding and safeguarding the sacred against profiteers and the forces of the law. At least part of the action is set in D.C., which is here not so much the seat of power, but a ‘holy place’. Sacredness is enshrined in the parchment of the Declaration of Independence. It should be noted that there are various documents of the Declaration, which was published as Dunlap broadsides. The film focussing on only the engrossed document, which is considered the ‘official’ Declaration, infuses it with awe, making it the stealing of it and safeguarding it all the more important.
The first film is a treasure hunt for the alleged treasure of the crusaders which America’s founding fathers wanted to hide it from the British. Above all, it’s the hero (Nicholas Cage) fighting for his family’s honour. The protagonists are all geeks of sorts although good-looking and athletic. The hero, who is the one who believes in the sacred story, steals the ultimate sacred document (the Declaration) to find the treasure, prove that the myth was true and vindicate his ancestors. Like Antigones, he goes against human law to abide by sacred law, kind of!
The second film, Book of Secrets, is set in the epic times of the civil war. That is really the birth of the United States. It is the blood and fire from which the country has emerged. This is remarked by the hero (Nicholas Cage) pointing to father of the nation Abraham Lincoln who used the singular verb ‘is’ rather than ‘are’ in reference to the US. The US ‘is’ a country, no longer divided. In the remembrance and celebration of the bloody birth of the country, the film appeals to national unity.
The film, in its unmistakably cringing manner, makes a couple of stops in London and Paris to get some ‘historical cred’. Again, the hero challenges human law to affirm the myth and briefly abducts the President, the incarnation of the supreme institution, in order to do so. The interesting ‘twist’ is given by the fact that the baddie, Mitch Wilkinson, (Ed Harris) is also fighting to vindicate his ancestors, although his ancestor was also a baddie. Mitch is honourable and ultimately sacrifices himself. I would venture in saying that it is his love for the sacred history of the country and his well-meaning intentions that redeem him.
National Treasure stays away from religion and anything that could be construed as controversial. The sanitised view of the country’s institutions, founding fathers and collective history are sacralised to inspire unity. It is a unity that overlooks diversity, not to mention complexity. Yet, National Treasure is an ‘interesting’ exercise in the sacralisation of nationhood. Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next instalment.