National Treasure, The Patriot, The Four Feathers

Weekly DVD/Video Picks
National Treasure (2004)

“We have to steal the Declaration of Independence!” Disney takes a stab at a lost art form, the family-friendly swashbuckler, in a tale that combines Indiana Jones’ archaeological spelunking, Ocean’s 11 caperism, and Da Vinci Code historical revisionism — but eschews the gratuitous PG-13 violence and sex that typically mar such films nowadays. Nicolas Cage searches for the riches of King Solomon’s temple, discovered by the Crusaders and hidden by the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, who planted clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Most of the film’s esoterica is harmless nonsense, with one glaring drawback: the flattering endorsement of the Freemasons, with their imaginary historical pedigree. Especially galling is the depiction of Charles Carroll — the lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence — as a Mason! Yet unlike Dan Brown, National Treasure doesn’t subvert the ideas on the front of the page, so to speak; the film is in no way anti-Catholic or even anti-American.

Annoying Freemason stuff aside, National Treasure works fairly well as slick, enjoyable hooey that not only comes up with two different approaches to stealing the Declaration of Independence, but gives the hero a credibly righteous motive for doing so — to protect it from the bad guy who wants to steal it first.

Content advisory: Action violence; a few mildly grisly images; minor profanity; fictionalized, uncritical depiction of unhistorical claims of Freemasonry. Could be okay for older kids.

The Patriot (2000)

The British take a beating in more ways than one in Mel Gibson’s sentimental, manipulative, rousing action-movie take on the American Revolution. Blending sober antipathy to war with gung-ho battle scenes, meticulous period visuals with historical revisionism, heartfelt reverence for family with monstrous caricatures of the enemy, The Patriot’s convictions may be half-baked, but it has the courage of them.

Along with Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot spares nothing of the horrors of war, and the protagonist’s heartfelt early speech against going to war is striking. Yet the villainous British officers are so utterly irredeemable that they might as well be Nazis.

Still, it’s a well-made, exciting movie with some worthwhile ideas, heartfelt sentiments and striking sequences.

Content advisory: Bloody battlefield violence and gore; non-historical war atrocities; a few strong expressions. Mature viewing.

The Four Feathers (1939)

Newly available on DVD, Zoltan Korda’s classic British adventure yarn of honor and redemption in 1880s Sudan is as flag-wavingly gung-ho for the British Empire as The Patriot is hostile to it — and all the more effectively so because, like The Patriot, The Four Feathers begins by letting the hero passionately doubt and challenge the rightness of the cause in which he spends the rest of the film fighting.

Korda’s film is neither the first nor the last adaptation of Mason’s 1902 novel — but it’s the only one that matters (forget the dull 2002 version starring Heath Ledger). The story: A young British officer resigns his commission with mixed motives, then realizes he can’t live with the stigma and goes incognito in an effort to redeem himself. With spectacular battle scenes and striking set pieces, The Four Feathers isn’t just for Anglophiles.

Content advisory: Restrained battlefield violence and mayhem. Fine for older kids.

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