It was fifteen years ago today that Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films released National Treasure in the United States. The movie turned out to be a bigger hit than critics were hoping for, spawning a sequel three years later. In truth, it’s fun, family entertainment and slightly—barely—educational. What producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub expected the movie to be back in 2004 is uncertain. A franchise was not the initial plan. Even its PG rating was a surprise to Bruckheimer, suggesting the radar of the producer behind Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop was not yet honed in on families. But one thing is clear: its inspiration. You can’t make an artifact-based adventure without comparisons to one iconic movie franchise featuring maybe the most instantly recognizable film character ever conceived—Indiana Jones.
The movies have enough in common that speaking of them in the same breath is not cinematic blasphemy. And though the National Treasure films made money, they’ve not lived on in anyone’s Criterion collection; these aren’t must-see staples of cinema.
When you watch the National Treasure films, you recognize a certain commercial quality they inherently possess, even if you’re bound to forget them not long after the credits roll. They are, simply, what movies were meant to be: escapism. Despite the fact that the sequel—National Treasure: Book of Secrets—outperformed its predecessor, raking in $457 million globally (the first one did $347 million), no fitting conclusion to complete the trilogy ever took place. Back in 2018, there were still tentative plans to get a third movie underway, but Disney wasn’t happy with what it had seen, script-wise. Said Turteltaub in our interview with him in July of that year:
“The script was close, but not so great that the studio couldn’t say yes. But it’s been good enough that the studio could have said, ‘Yes, keep going. Get closer.’ Jerry Bruckheimer is the master of taking something that’s good enough and turning it into something great in about an hour and a half. It’s a little nerve-wracking but it works.”
At this rate, with Disney’s vast array of projects in the pipeline and Nicolas Cage’s ever broadening tastes, we may never see part three.
Creating a world renowned movie franchise from scratch is no easy task. From a seed of an idea in George Lucas’ brain nearly five decades ago sprung forth three movies (four, if you count The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) with a fourth (or fifth, if you count The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) on the way in sometime in 2021, a television series (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), video games, theme park rides, and merchandise. Close to $2 billion later in worldwide unadjusted box office dollars, Indiana Jones has endured while National Treasure sputtered, at least in terms of cultural consciousness. What is it that puts Indy in a class all his own by comparison?
The answer is not so simple. A mere, “Indiana Jones is just better than National Treasure” is not a sufficient response. Quality does not equal mass appeal. And proof of that subjective statement is everywhere you look.
These movies place reckless protagonists with affinities for legendary relics in harm’s way, pitted against enemies after the same items. Action and thrills ensue, and twists and turns, and romance. Both contain all the ingredients for commercial entertainment in the adventure genre. Consider how much the first National Treasure has in common with Last Crusade—the tone, the father angle, the belief in something greater than themselves, even a blonde, German, female sidekick! What sets them apart is style, setting, and creative choices, more than anything else. Which proves how far a presentation can go, even if the content is similar.
From the outset, National Treasure comes off as a movie for kids. It doesn’t all unfold that way, but its first five minutes are more Night at the Museum than Temple of Doom. After Disney’s logo fades, we meet a child rummaging through an attic, caught by his grandfather, who then tells him the tale of the coveted treasure in the Gates family. His story takes us on a montage-like journey through history before we find that boy all grown up, transformed into Nicolas Cage and hunting after said treasure. This near whimsical opening tells us exactly what this movie is going to be about. Danger arises some ten minutes later when Ben Gates’ (Cage) partner, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), turns on him, seeking the treasure for himself. Whichever one gets to the Declaration of Independence first, and steals it, has the better shot at discovering the treasure. Implausible as it is, the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t exactly grounded. There is rumor, however, that Hitler was in search of the “Spear of Destiny,”—that is, the lance used by a Roman Centurion to pierce Jesus’ side while He hung on the cross.
But consider the first images of Spielberg’s Raiders as compared to Turteltaub’s. The Paramount logo blends to a real mountain, and then we meet our hero—from behind—in his snap-brim fedora and brown leather jacket. Instantly, there’s something classic about his appearance, and about the scene as a whole. Danger and wonder are immediately apparent, an ancient relic protected by booby traps in the hero’s sights. Lucas wanted to bring to life the adventures of 1930s-era soldiers of fortune from Saturday morning serials. Indiana Smith became Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant became the prize, pre-World War II Nazis the villains, and the rest is movie history.
And here’s the kicker. Even if the technical brilliance wasn’t there, or if, say, Irvin Kershner or John Landis had been tapped to direct, these films could very well still be regarded as time-honored art of great import. Part of the reason is the novel nature of them. That’s not to say Lucas and company didn’t borrow from other films—check out Secret of the Incas if you’re unconvinced—it’s just that this sort of movie coming to a modern mainstream audience, especially after the grim nature of 1970s cinema, was a breath of escapist fresh air we didn’t know we craved. There was such a style to them, such a flair. It was camp mixed with the grotesque, action blended with humor, a hero women lusted after and men dreamed they could be.
No matter your opinions on Lucas, the man had a vision he believed would connect with filmgoers’ sensibilities, and he was right. The choices made concerning Raiders versus National Treasure are night and day. The latter is a 2004 film set in the year it was made. Though the villains are British, it’s a very domestic film through and through. Consider the title: *National* Treasure. There’s a patriotism running through its veins—a romanticizing of the Founding Fathers and their efforts to ensure liberty from oppression. Even the characters’ names—Gates and Howe—are a play on Revolution-era figures. Horatio Gates was a general in the Continental Army. He’s even entombed in Trinity Church, where the film’s climax occurs. William Howe, on the other hand, was Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, pitted against George Washington, Gates, and all the rest. It’s not a very subtle statement from Bruckheimer (or Turteltaub, or writers Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberly, and Marianne Wibberly) about which side they believed to be the virtuous one.
Raiders, by contrast, and all of the Jones films for that matter, are international through and through. Paramount had its sights on the whole world, not just America. A wide net was cast for the cast, and production hopped all over the globe. The result is plainly evident on screen. Indiana Jones transports you to another time and many a place. And to top it all off, it’s got a supernatural element that’s handled with care. There’s an air of mysterious wonder to the Ark, the stones, and the Grail all the way through—even after we’ve seen these coveted artifacts. The characters know they’re real, but they can’t quite comprehend them. Nor can we. Playing it this way was a stroke of genius by Spielberg and crew, leaving the audience satisfied, yet still pondering the power of these items. What you see on screen is inaccessible. It’s fantastical, yet historical. National Treasure is the opposite in that sense. It values American history, which is wonderful, but it comes off as pedestrian. Because the National Treasure films are contemporary, there’s nothing exotic about them. They’re not fantasies featuring powers beyond our grasp; they’re invented lore that can be fact-checked even by novices of the internet sleuth community.
The leading men of both franchises are able-bodied swashbuckling types. There’s a key feature that separates them, however, and it’s a notion conceived by the Jones crew that makes all the difference. In spite of everything he’s seen, be it supernatural, magical, or just plain extraordinary, Indiana Jones is still a skeptic. To him, people of faith are engaged in superstitious hocus-pocus. Even by the third film, when he’s been in the presence of Old Testament power, he still walks around with a sense of suspicion. This gruff, cynical character trait gives the sense that there’s something he’s not telling you—like he’s playing hard to get with the audience. He’s got the personality of the film noir anti-heroes of old. But that’s what gives him room to grow. We want to see him converted to a believer, so to speak. We, the audience, have climbed aboard for a ride into the unknown, hoping to see things we can’t explain, and wanting to believe in them. And we want our protagonist to meet us there.
Ben Gates, by comparison, is a man with a childlike faith. A sense of wonder strikes him as a boy and, thirty years later, it’s still as lively as ever. His character has nowhere to go, nothing to grow into. He’s a believer in the beginning, a believer in the end. It would be preposterous to root for him to become a skeptic; we can only hope he finds what he already knows is there.
This detail—the conception of these men—creates a massive chasm between them. It makes Indy unpredictable, dangerous. And it leaves Gates on the outside looking in. His visage, his principles, his missions—he was never going to become an icon.
And an icon is what Indiana Jones is, very likely because of when he swung into our lives. The beginning of the 1980s marked a new era of cinema. We were starved for heroes. After the success of Star Wars and Superman, our appetites were whetted for more. So the space cowboy playing second fiddle to Luke Skywalker was given center stage, and audiences loved what they saw.
In 2004, when the first National Treasure hit theaters, we were on the cusp of something no one could have anticipated would grow into what it has. The superhero genre was still in its infancy then. But by 2007, when Book of Secrets premiered, we’d already seen new versions of Batman and Superman, three Spider-Man films, and three X-Men films. In 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. Ben Gates versus the wisecracking personas and superhuman proficiencies of these guys was going to be an unfair fight. Disney could see the shift taking place. Rather than develop a third National Treasure film—or any new franchise from the ground up—it swooped in while the iron was hot. Granted, the studio reunited Cage, Turteltaub, and Bruckheimer for 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but that turned out to be a one-off. On the last day of 2009, it purchased Marvel Entertainment. Then it bought Lucasfilm in 2012. It was clear which heroes Disney believed were worth investing in. Frankly, there was just no room for Ben Gates among them. He is a victim of the times.
Still, Turteltaub disagrees. In that same interview, he had this to say:
“It’s really that Disney feels they have other films they want to make that they think will make them more money. I think they’re wrong. I think they’re right about the movies they’re making; they’re obviously doing a really good job at making great films. I just think this would be one of them, and they don’t quite realize how much the Internet is begging for a third National Treasure.”
What, specifically, the internet is begging for is up for debate. It doesn’t seem it’s begging for this forthcoming Indiana Jones film, but that one’s on the horizon because of the franchise’s merits, which isn’t up for debate.
And if all of this wasn’t enough to elevate one franchise over the other in terms of its indelibility, John Williams’ triumphant score brings it all home. While Trevor Rabin does fine work in National Treasure (his Remember the Titans score is still his best), it doesn’t make a home in your mind. Listening to a sample of it, you don’t immediately think, “Oh, that’s National Treasure!” The Williams score is so woven within the fibers of the Jones films, you can’t possibly imagine them without his orchestra supporting the imagery. Spielberg probably relies too heavily on Williams to make his emotional impact (search “The Importance of John Williams – E.T. Edition” on YouTube if you want proof), but that’s not the argument here. The argument is why this franchise has resonated while Turteltaub’s has not. And the music associated with it has much to do with that. When you hear the first notes from those “Raiders March” horns, it instantly conjures up images of Dr. Jones cracking his whip, climbing onto a Nazi sub, or riding off into the sunset with his father, Marcus, and Sallah.
So today, on the fifteen year anniversary of National Treasure’s release, we’re reminded that some movies—or movie franchises—are more special than others. National Treasure isn’t one of those, though it takes a careful examination of Indiana Jones’ impact to understand why. Sometimes a film comes at precisely the right time and makes all the right choices in its look, its plot, its heroes and villains, and its sound. And that has little to do with the execution of those choices. Indiana Jones is a product that just pops, even when it’s subpar (Temple of Doom). Disney likely wasn’t trying to one-up Paramount, but they took notes, applied them to something fresh, and still turned in a solid effort. They simply did it a decade too late, with a hero too banal in appearance, caught in too domestic of a struggle. We may never have another Indiana Jones. And with the original three films still as rollicking now as they were thirty years ago, why would we want one?