This is something I was going to use for my church newsletter column, but I decided to go with the 49 Up piece instead.
I'm glad I didn't use it, because I'm sure I'll write about the great film treasure of the year, No Country for Old Men, come Oscar time, and National Treasure II was as dumb as a bag of tacks.
The fantasy takes many forms, but we all dream about it at times. Whether is be finding an original painting by Whistler in the attic, gold buried in a field or the even more unlikely possibility of buying a winning lottery ticket, we think about what we would do if we found a treasure.
A little way into No Country for Old Men, we see a man find a treasure. Set in West Texas in 1980, a Vietnam vet by the name of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) while deer hunting stumbles across the results of a shootout between drug dealers. He finds a number of corpses, many packets of heroin and two million dollars.
For a time viewers think that this is a typical action film about an ordinary guy who outwits criminals on his way to seeing that his fortune is preserved and justice is served. But the film is about much more. It is about the fleeting nature of life, the endurance of evil in the world and responsibility of to do what is right even if we are not assured of being rewarded for doing so.
Ethan and Joel Coen have made a great film. But it is a grim film, a very violent film and one that on its surface seems to enforce a nihilistic view of life. But I think that sense of hopelessness is just the surface of the film. The heart of the film is found in the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, warmly played by Tommy Lee Jones. At one point of the film, Bell says he had always hoped God would come into his life, but He never did. But then he says “I don’t blame Him”. Bell deals daily with the results of human sin and depravity, but he continues to hope there is something more, for a life beyond this one.
Though all in the film are pursuing the satchel full of money, they all come to realize, that there are much greater treasures than the world’s riches. Even Anton Chigurh, a very creepy Javier Bardem, the psychopath killer sent after Moss talks argues that there are things much more valuable than money. And yet character after character risks life, and even their souls, in pursuit of earthly treasure. Perhaps many of the characters pursue the money because it keeps them from thinking about the things that truly matter.
(The movie closely follows novel by Cormac McCarthy, but it leaves out my favorite passage from that book: Sheriff Bell muses about how everyone talks about the bad things that come in their life that they don’t deserve. But he thinks about the good things in life that he doesn’t deserve. Such as the day he met the woman that would be his wife. As Proverbs 31: 10 says, a wife of noble character is worth more than rubies.)
This is not the first film, of course, to show the dangers of greed in the pursuit of treasure. Sam Rami’s excellent A Simple Plan focused on many of the same themes. And John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre also showed the dangers of greed with the bonus of Bogart and that greasy thief exclaiming, “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” Huston made another treasure hunter film in The Man Who Would Be King based on a Robert Kipling with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as men who come to desire more than mere treasure but also obedience and worship.
All of these films aptly illustrate the words of Jesus from Matthew 16: 26: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
But is treasure hunting always bad? Jesus didn’t seem to think so. The hero of his parable in Matthew 13:44 is a treasure hunter.
One of the all time great fun treasure hunting stories has the bonus of pirates as well. There have been a lot of versions of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but my favorite is Disney’s 1950 version. Robert Newton as Long John Silver still provides the best model for “Talk Like a Pirate Day”.
Another film in this genre is coming out December 21, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, a sequel to the 2004 hit which also starred Nicolas Cage. The first film was not exactly profound, but it was fun and G-rated (the rating for the sequel as well).
For sheer fun, though, my favorite treasure hunting film has been and will probably always be, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though he would protest he was just seeking knowledge, we all knew Indiana Jones was all about the adventure in the hunt. Though violent, this film is wise enough to make the Ark of the Covenant, or in fact, God Himself, the greatest treasure of all.
And that is the key to true treasure hunting. Silver and gold is for pikers: real treasure hunters seek Jesus.
Treasure Island (1950) Byron Haskin
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) John Huston
National Treasure (2004) & (2007)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)