A Founding Father helps thicken the plot


December 03, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In National Treasure, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, controls a key clue to the whereabouts of a secret treasure. He's part of a conspiracy of Masons among the Founding Fathers, including Ben Franklin and George Washington. They've acquired an immense trove of precious historical artifacts - and they've hidden it to keep it safe from America's enemies.

Ronald Hoffman, author of a history of the Carroll clan, Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland, and the director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., says that Carroll was not a Mason. But over the phone from Williamsburg, Hoffman explains that Carroll was significant because he was "the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence" in an age when tensions between Catholics and Protestants were considered far more dangerous than those between wealthy Colonists and ordinary settlers or between whites and non-whites.

Hoffman says that Maryland was for decades "a unique exception" to the British Empire's anti-Catholic practices - the only region under English rule that permitted Catholics to vote and hold office. But in 1718 Maryland Catholics were stripped of political rights, forbidden to practice their religion publicly or educate their children in their faith, and threatened with dispossession. And that "is why Carroll's entrance into political life was so important."

Hoffman hasn't seen National Treasure. But the film has won an expert fan in Elisabeth A. Proffen, special collections librarian of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society. In an e-mail, she writes, "I was a bit amused to see Carroll portrayed as an overweight gentleman when he was actually extremely thin throughout his life, even right before his death."

She also notes that the Catholic Church "early in the 18th century denounced membership in secret societies, Freemasonry specifically." But she enjoyed the characters' dedication to preserving the actual Declaration of Independence and "the positive portrayal of the archivist Abigal Chase [Diane Kruger]. Her character is `passionate' about history and the Declaration but is not portrayed as incredibly `geeky' or lacking in social skills." Proffen has been "very vocal in recent days in my recommendation that my colleagues see the film."

Continuing in wide release, National Treasure has been the No. 1 box office attraction for two weeks, with a current gross estimated at $96 million.

At the Charles

The Third Man (1949) is still full of surprises. Everybody's favorite ravaged-postwar-Europe thriller arrives at the Charles Saturday at noon and Thursday night at 9. Especially in the restored print playing at the Charles, the screenwriter, Graham Greene, the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, and the director, Carol Reed, seem to operate on pure instinct, revealing characters and milieu in the most apt, musical and piercing way.

The film's tortured romanticism and moral and political ambivalence remain fresh and startling. The moviemakers pillory corrupt old Europe. But they also satirize two Americans of different stripes - Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a naive cowboy novelist, and Orson Welles as Harry Lime, an amoral black marketer. Reed jacks up the tension through a series of oblique touches, most of which isolate the idealistic Martins as a risky anomaly in a world where everything is for sale and the price gets exacted in blood and hellfire.

Visit: www.thecharles.com.

`Alexander' the DVD

Krasker also photographed writer-director Robert Rossen's 1956 spectacular, Alexander the Great, just out on DVD, and his eye brings a simmering brilliance to warriors marauding through arid plains and rocky hillsides. Here as in Oliver Stone's Alexander, the hero comes to maturity amid palace intrigues comparable to those of I, Claudius, while his father, Philip of Macedonia, battles the Greek city-states. Then Alexander conquers the world.

During the filming of this CinemaScope epic, Rossen said that he intended to portray Alexander as a visionary who tries to fuse Europe and Asia but ends up destroying other people and himself. Whether because Rossen's own reach exceeded his grasp or because the distributors slashed 44 minutes from the filmmaker's three-hour cut, Alexander comes off mostly as an imperialist glory-hound. The finished film lacks drive, rhythm and clarity. Still, it's far more engrossing than Stone's woozy bombast. Trim, goldilocked Richard Burton proves to be a magnetic Alexander, with a feline aura of rebellion that asserts itself thrillingly whenever he acts with Fredric March as his father and Danielle Darrieux as his equally ambitious mom.

Alexander the Great is an MGM Home Video release ($14.95).

Cinema Sundays

Beyond the Sea hopes to rock the Charles as this week's entry in Baltimore's favorite preview-and-discussion series. Kevin Spacey directs the story of late-'50s pop phenom Bobby Darin and stars as Darin, with Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee.

Will Spacey, who does his own singing, wrest this year's musical biopic crown from Jamie Foxx, who lip-synched Ray Charles? You can find out at the Charles on Sunday, at 10:30 a.m. Doors open for coffee, bagels and conversation at 9:45. Jennifer Ballengee, from the English Department at Towson University, leads the post-film discussion. Admission: $15. Visit: www.cinemasundays.com.

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