Top Ten Masonic Movies and References to Freemasonry Secrets in Films: Part One by Duncan Burden
Guest Post by Duncan Burden
Top Ten Masonic Movies and References
to Freemasonry Secrets in Films: Part One
There have been several masonic movies that draw their plots directly by referencing Freemasonry, such as the comedy ‘Are You a Mason?’ in 1915 and remade in 1934, and Johnny Depp’s horror-thriller ‘From Hell’ in 2001 which shows the conspiracy elements linking Victorian English Freemasons involved with the notorious Jack the Ripper.
In the light-adventure genre there is Nicolas Cage’s Disney blockbuster ‘National Treasure’ of 2004, creating a story of America’s Founding Fathers and the supposed treasure of the Knights Templar handed down and protected by Freemasons, making a fun and family entertaining treasure hunt. Unfortunately, it is believed that it is due to the production of this film, that Dan Brown’s own story of a lost Masonic prize, ‘The Lost Symbol’, part of his ‘Robert Langdon’ series (‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’) never made it past pre-production, as many in the business thought that the concept was too similar.
Even so, Freemasonry continues to be used as a template for big screen stories, continuing with the 2013 movie, actually called ‘The Freemason’, with the catchy and masonically emotive tagline of ‘Three can keep a secret, if two are dead…’
The public passion for Freemasonry has been evident from the first printed ‘Exposures’ of the Fraternity, published about it in the late 17th century. These were often small booklets claiming to reveal the secrets of the Order, or where editorial pieces written for Newspapers, to increase sales and circulation, and quality that film producers and writers still think can make them money. Yet, perhaps the more engaging quest for the public is to trace the more subtle uses and references to Freemasonry that have been used in films, possibly left as ‘teasers’ for those ‘in the know’, or acts of ‘homage’ to a quality of culture that may appreciate them?
Here is the first of five of a list of 10 films that give either a good ‘wink’ to Freemasonry, or a smile to those who might catch the reference.
1)Time Machine (1960)
Possibly the most parodied version of H. G. Well’s 1895 novel, staring Rod Taylor as the ‘Time-Travelling’ Inventor George Well. Even though dated in its presentation, the Time Machine and the representations of the vile Morlocks have become iconic and, for many, instantly recognizable, even for them to be used as a full plotline for a ‘Big Bang Theory’ episode.
Yet, there is a subtle masonic reference, possibly used to both represent the period of the Time Travelers native life, and to express the basis of the friendship and nature of care from his best friend in the story ‘David Filby’, who in the film is played by Alan Young.
Near the beginning of the film, to set the story, the principle character invites friends round to show a model of his invention. At the end of the test, and most of the guests have left, the character Filby stays because of his concern for his friend and says the following line…
‘George, I speak to you as a friend, and even more, as a brother…’
The importance of this statement is the order of the words. Besides the fact that no hint in the book is ever given of these two men actually being brothers by blood or marriage, even if they were related, then the statement would read ‘George, I speak to you not just as a brother, but even more so a friend…’ implying that the latter is more important than the obvious former. As such, the latter is not obvious, at least to those not aware of why these two could be termed ‘Brothers’, but to a Freemason this statement is extremely clear.
Freemasons understanding of Brotherhood is of genuine concern for a fellow Brother, and are duty bound to care for a fellow Mason (within the restrictions of Divine and Government Law and their own ability and responsibilities). When this is understood, this simple ‘throw-away’ line has a significance of meaning to the Masons in the audience.
2) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
The film ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ is actually based on a comic book series which began in 1999, although technically more of an ‘interpretation’ of series, which caused a little unrest for fans of the comics. Again, possibly due to this story also being placed in the Victorian era, Freemasonry again seems to be a device to depict the period, as the film gives at least three direct visual Masonic references. In two close-ups of an oversize masonic ‘Square and Compasses’ ring worn by the villain character ‘Phantom’, who is trying to start a world war.
The same masonic device is seen on the doors of the founder of the League, ‘M’, who is later discovered to be an incarnation of the criminal genius ‘Moriarty’.
As such, it appears that the attempt is being made to show Freemasons as being an evil part of the plan, or, at least, that the villains are using the society to protect themselves or promote their influence through it. It’s worth noting that the author of the original graphic novel was an Alan Moore, who also was behind the graphical novel ‘From Hell’, which becomes the Johnny Depp film of the same name. In which, although it had Jack the Ripper as a Freemason, also had Freemasons carrying out their own punishment on this killer.
3) Help! (1965)
On a lighter note, the tongue-in-cheek Beatles film ‘Help’ present a swift pun towards Freemasonry. In the 1960’s English culture was in change, with a class struggle of definition. One side of the populace, still believing in an ethos of British Empire and ‘stiff-upper-lip’ attitude to the themselves and the world, against the flooding wave of freedom and love massing in fashion and the arts, and for many this was defined by the Beatles, in their music and how they presented themselves. During this time, if the Beatles could be seen as representing the new representation of English culture, then Freemasonry would be the personification of the aged ‘old-boy-network’. Membership to Freemasonry was something for a point of mockery during this transition, as many Monty Python sketches demonstrate.
Yet, in cinema, a fun example can be found, when the famous drummer Ringo Starr, asks an Indian restaurant doorman, ‘You know what this ring means?’, to which he gets the reply ‘Freemason?’ Perhaps history will continue to interpret this simple exchange, is the waiter seeing the boasting fun of Ringo no different to the boasting understanding of Freemasonry at the time? Was this is an artistic moment of clarity, showing that really both ends of this cultural divide were really just two sides of the same coin? Is it furtherly poetic, that it is neither a Freemason or Ringo making the observation, but rather an ordinary member of the public, a character just getting on with life and the madness of perceived extremes continue. Or perhaps it was just a very weak joke.
4)Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Hobson’s Choice is a delightful black and white romantic comedy, based on the play by David Lean. The title of the play and, subsequently, the film comes directly from an English cultural term, inferring when someone is given the notion of ‘free choice’ but in reality that only one choice of action exists.
The phrase is meant to have originated by a Thomas Hobson, who lived in Cambridge, England, through the end of the 16th century into the 17th, whose attitude to customer service was simply ‘take it, or leave it’, in that although his livery stable held around 40 horses available to be hired, which encouraged his customers to come in on the assumption that they could have their pick, but when they were inside they discovered that although 40 horses were there, they were denied choice and told they could only have a specific horse.
In the film, Charles Laughton plays the title character of ‘Henry Horatio Hobson’, a heavy drinker and widower with three daughters. He uses his daughters as virtual slave-labour, until eventually the eldest, the most prudent of the three, marries and goes into business herself, in competition to her Father’s and eventually takes-over in situation that explains the name of the production.
There are at least three Masonic references in the film.
A visual reference is that there is a Masonic Master Mason’s certificate briefly seen hanging on a wall, when one of the daughters walks into her father’s office, a second certificate is seen later in the front of the shop. In most jurisdictions, this would be a Masonic offence to show your Masonic certificate in public, especially at work.
Yet is the three points in the script that are more entertaining to mention in their references to Freemasonry. One is when a character called ‘Mr. Heeler’ enters the shop asking for Mr. Hobson, but is told that Mr. Hobson hasn’t even come down to have his breakfast yet. To this the oldest sister exclaims, ‘Breakfast? With your Masons meeting last night?’, not only implying that Mr. Heeler is also recognized as a Mason, but also that it should be common knowledge that after ‘their’ meetings it should be known that Mr. Hobson would be ‘recovering’.
Another reference is again from the oldest sister, when she takes offence against how he is speaking to her across the dinner table, by saying ‘You’re not addressing a Mason’s meeting, now father!’
Yet it is the very first line of the film that is the most engaging, when Mr. Hobson enters the shop, clearly drunk, and the same daughter says, ‘Good job your Masons meeting’s only once a month.’ Which not only quickly sets the tone between Father and Daughter, but also of Mr. Hobson’s representation of a character joining a group for social recognition, but socially inept to acknowledge his failings in adhering to the moral code of conduct expected.
The observation of drunk masons is not new. The famous 18th century artist William Hogarth, published several satirical engravings mocking the public displays of drunken Freemasons cavorting through the streets of London after their meetings. The interesting thing is that Hogarth was a prominent Freemason himself, which means his work could be reviewed as damaging to his own fraternity, but really his work is really a political statement of a hypocrisy that existed at the time, of how many social figures who joined the craft and self-claimed themselves to be moralists, were normally the most immoral of society.
The charm of the film quote now is not so much the immorality, just the humble observation confirming that for most modern masons, with modern lives, the monthly visit to the lodge often is their only social engagement, and are often called ‘Knife and Fork’ masons – there only for the company and food.
Magnolia is not a casual film by any extreme. It’s one of those films that you have to sit and engage with, no slipping out for more popcorn. This film is, itself, structured to a modern work of classical art, in that its value is not meant to be just a movie, but something purposefully designed to have additional depth and meaning. Perhaps the several references to Freemasonry, both visually and verbally, are meant to convey not the literal portrayal of the society, but what that society is seen to be by many within it and against it, as a society with various intentional meanings, and depending on your opinion those meanings are both positive and negative.
The first real representation of Freemasonry in the film is the character ‘Stanley Spector’, who is reading in the school library and out of the various known titles is a book not commonly known outside Masonic scholars, Albert Mackey’s ‘The History of Freemasonry’. The presence of this book could simply be the random choice of the prop department, although the coincidence exists that the name of Tom Cruise’s character is , ‘Frank T.J. Mackey’. It is most probable that Stan brought this book from home (in one of those four bags of books he brings to school every day), as this seems to be an unlikely text to find in a middle school library.
Two other Masonic references come in quick succession, and are so obvious, especially to a Freemason, that it seems extremely evident that the film is trying hard to highlight the point. It occurs with the television show host, ‘Jimmy Gator’, who is about to go on set and his friend, the show’s executive, ‘Burt Ramsey’, gives him a reassuring pat on the shoulder, which clearly shows that common cinematic tool of indicating a Freemason, a masonic ring.
Yet, if that was not enough the character adds the words ‘We met upon the level, and we’re parting on the square.’ This term of meeting ‘on the level’ and ‘part on the ‘square’ is a concept of description of how Freemasons are meant to greet and treat each other, and, in one form or another is found in Masonic ceremonies around the world, although the actual need for the audience to know this as a fact is not important, as even if it wasn’t true it would be accepted as something a Mason would be accepted as saying as it sounds ceremonial, implies a bond between two people and hints are referring to tools a stonemason might use.
Besides these clear references, other hints of Masonic values ‘could’ be seen as being represented in this film. In the visual layout of set on of Jimmy Gator game show, in the panels are such things as set of compasses , the Greek letter π , balancing scales, a globe, Bohr’s atomic structure, the Caduceus, a weather vein with the cardinal directions, a hand holding a quill, a harp, and a book with an oil lamp, although far from conclusive, these images are meant to convey in the film that the program is about education, and would seem logical to use classical representations of education to convey this. Yet, education, for both children and the individual is evident in Masonic rituals, and in these references also use classical symbols and terms to express their importance – just as this film appears to attempt to do. Why it does is openly left for the audience to interpret.
The final possible Masonic reference is to a story related in the film, which is about ‘The Hanging of Three Men’, describing how a businessman is murdered by three men who were trying to rob him. This could be an allusion to one of the primary stories found in Freemasonry, of the Masonic legend of Hiram Abif, Grand Master and architect of King Solomon’s Temple, who is said to be killed by three Fellow Crafts (known as the Three Ruffians) who wanted to know the Secrets of a Master Mason.
Art, classically, is meant to challenge, which certainly seems to be the element of this film. Some would argue that the full interpretation is left for the individual to enjoy, but in reality, classical art is meant to only offer a single correct interpretation, that only the worthy get to find – that is a treasure hunt in itself and perhaps something for another discussion, for another time.
~Guest Post by Duncan Burden