Volume LVMay 2008Number 2

Freemasonry: The "True" Hollywood Story?
Starring Intrigue, Mystery and History - Co-starring Fact and Fiction

It is no secret that our society has an obsession with secret societies. The Order of Skulls and Bones, Freemasons, the Illuminati - all are ideal topics for the imaginative minds of Hollywood directors attempting to feed people's curiosity. While shedding light on often-speculated subjects, these movies may lose sight of the facts, leaving the public with misconceptions and exaggerations of these "secret" fraternities and orders.

"People like adventure," Bro. Mike Comfort, St. Alban Lodge No. 529, Philadelphia, said. "Give a plot line revolving around a secret or mysterious organization - real or imaginary - and it becomes even more intriguing."

Being labeled a "secret" society, the Masonic order attracts a lot of attention because "it is the same kind of feeling as peeking into someone's diary," Bro. Paul Kreft, P.M., St. Alban Lodge No. 529, said. "Most folks who have heard of the Masons and their secrets are intrigued by the fact that they will be let into that secret world through the film. What they do not realize is that it's all for show, and like all drama, the truth is altered a bit for effect and for audience manipulation."

Suspicions of the organization date back centuries. The quick growth of the Masonic fraternity in the United States, from 16,000 members in 1800 to 80,000 in 1822, led outsiders to view it as a threat to authority. The behavior of a few members in 1827 had a rippling effect. When William Morgan, an alleged Mason who threatened to publish a book revealing secrets of the Royal Arch, went missing, several members of the Grand Lodge of New York received minor prison terms. The American public's ensuing mistrust led to the formation of the national Anti-Masonic Party and a waning membership in the fraternity. This party later dissolved upon the emergence of the Democratic and Whig parties.

With the controversies came the curiosities. It has often been speculated whether Masonry is derived from the Knights Templar, an order that was suppressed in the 1300s, although it is claimed they survived secretly underground. Links to Satanic rituals originated from a late 1800s French writer who claimed to expose the secret religion of Freemasonry as the worship of Lucifer. He later confessed to the hoax, but the rumor still lingers.

"Secret societies and their rituals are good fodder for fiction because few people in the audience know the truth anyway," Bro. Kreft said. "To most people, the facts of Freemasonry can read like a rather dry history. Hollywood has to sell tickets, so they do what every film tries to do: entertain at all costs."

According to Kreft, a great many comedies of the Golden Age featured, harmlessly, a Masonic theme or "men's club" in the plot, as these organizations were very popular during that time period. As membership tapered off, so did the references. In a classic comic plot, husbands snuck off to lodge and then came home to the wrath of the wives, as seen in the Laurel and Hardy film "Our Relations" (1936).A judge gets Stan and Ollie out of punishment for a petty crime and sends them home with their wives. As the wives exit, the judge winks at Stan and Ollie, makes a few ridiculous hand gestures and says "see you in lodge." Stan and Ollie smile, knowing that their lodge brother has just saved them from trouble.

Other examples include "Sons of the Desert" (1933), the Shriners' parody with Laurel and Hardy; "Amos and Andy" and their fraternal organization the Mystic Knights of the Sea; and even the Flintstone's "Royal Order of Water Buffaloes" and the Honeymooner's "Royal Order of Raccoons."

In the Three Stooges short "You Nazty Spy," (1940) Larry complains to Moe that they cannot have a round-table conference because they only have a square table. Moe replies, "In Moronica, nothing is on the square!" They then proceed to cut the corners off the table. Masonic-inspired language, such as "Is this on the level?" or "Are you being square with me?" were also popular, especially in gangster films.

Bro. Trevor W. McKeown, Curator of the Library and Archives of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, has conducted extensive research on Masonic references in popular culture, including art, cinema, comics, literature and music, and listed them on his Grand Lodge's Web site, www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/fiction/index.html. In the cinema section, he lists movies in which Masonic rituals, language or symbols appear, relevant to the plot or not, and often includes the exact time the scene occurs.

"Setting aside the major Masonic references in 'The Man Who Would Be King' (1975), 'From Hell' (2001), 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003) and 'National Treasure' (2004), it is films such as 'The Man' (2005), 'U-Turn' (1997), 'Shoot 'Em Up' (2007) and 'Lone Star' (1996), where the principal villain wears a square and compasses ring or lapel pin, that pose the biggest threat to Freemasonry," he said. "'From Hell' and 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' are comic books, but 'The Man' and 'Shoot 'Em Up' are subtle, almost subliminal, in their negative depiction of Freemasonry."

From his survey of 1,500 films, the number with references to the Craft totaled 80. Some notable examples include:

"The Man Who Would be King" - Bro. Rudyard Kipling's novel-turned film features two ex-British soldiers in India who head off to Kafiristan and, based on Masonic symbols and religious artifacts, convince the people of the tribe they are kings. It exemplifies the strength of the Masonic brotherhood and how members bond as one to help each other, according to Bro. Stephen Long, St. Alban Lodge, No. 529.

"Murder by Decree" (1979) - Sherlock Holmes is on the case of Jack the Ripper, who he finds to be Sir William Gull, a Mason. Holmes has a showdown with supposed Masonic conspirators in the Grand Lodge of England.

"From Hell" - This story of Jack the Ripper makes reference to 19th century British Freemasonry, depicting a Masonic legislator and police engaging in a cover up of the killer's identity. This fictional movie contains numerous Masonic images and Jack is revealed to be Sir William Gull, a Freemason. His fellow brothers retaliate against him in the end.

"National Treasure" - With a movie poster featuring a faded square and compasses hidden along the top edge, this film was guaranteed to have Masonic references shrouded with mystery. Benjamin Gates sets out on a hunt based on tales of a large treasure hidden by Masons, who he states formed from the Knights Templar. The first clue of the hunt comes from Charles Carroll, who Ben identifies as one of nine Masons who signed the Declaration of Independence. (Carroll actually was not a Mason, although nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons.) Another reference describes the lantern as a part of Masonic teachings, signifying the journey made to find the light of truth. The movie shows nine square and compasses, including one hidden on the Declaration of Independence and one on the ring of FBI Agent and Bro. Sadusky. The sequel depicts this agent as an honorable man; a desirable ambassador of true Masons. It was speculated after the release of the film that Walt Disney was a Mason. He was not; however, as a youth, he was a member of the Order of DeMolay.

"The Da Vinci Code" (2006) - The movie, based on the fictional book by Dan Brown, does not speak of Freemasonry directly, but it depicts symbols associated with the fraternity and certainly feeds into conspiracies of Freemasonry's alleged connections to the Knights Templar.

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets" (2007) - As a new hunt ensues, this sequel makes fewer Masonic references than the original. The first scene takes place at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Va. Bro. and Confederate General Albert Pike, a notable Freemason and author of "Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry," was mentioned for having secret correspondence with Queen Victoria. Bro. Frederic Bartholdi's French Statue of Liberty (he designed a sister version, located in Paris, France) contributed to a clue in the hunt. The hunters end up at Mount Rushmore, a monument featuring two Masons, Presidents George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, and created by Bro. Gutzon Borglum and his son, Bro. Lincoln Borglum. Advertisements for the movie featured a square and compasses and the Teutonic Cross, a symbol of the 32nd Scottish Rite degree.

In the more subtle, positive examples, such as scenes where a character dons a Masonic lapel pin, but no other mention is made of it, someone involved in the film's production may have been a Mason and was quietly reaching out to fellow Masons. It may also be an attempt to portray a character as encompassing the moral principles on which Masons pride themselves.

"I personally feel any exposure to the fraternity is good publicity," Bro. Long said. "If someone sees a movie that involves the Masons as a 'secret' society, they might be inclined to do research on the group, and in doing so, decide to join. It is then up to us to show him the true purpose of Freemasonry and that we are not a 'secret' organization, but that we do good and charitable things to help our neighbors and the community."

For an organization with road signs advertising their locations and phone numbers, public notices of meetings, visibly displayed signs on lodges and active community involvement, secrecy is far from Freemasonry's mission. Hollywood's take on Freemasonry is likely to incite further attention with Dan Brown's "The Solomon Key," a sequel to the "Da Vinci Code," due out sometime in 2008; the release of the movie "Angels and Demons," based on Brown's first book in the "Da Vinci Code" series; and the much-discussed potential for a third "National Treasure."

"These films spark interest, but not for long," Bro. Kreft said. "It is up to the fraternity to take that interest and somehow run with it when the films themselves are out in the public eye."

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