An archivist’s night at the movies – revealing the power of archival records

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By Kyle Neill, Senior Archivist

As a follow up to my colleague Nick Moreau’s post concerning the depiction of archives in the 2014 movie Paddington, I thought it might be fun to examine how archives and/or records are used to advance the plot in some of my favourite movies.

I have decided to look at The Mask of Dimitrios, The Shadow, The Phantom, and National Treasure. Interestingly, the use of archives/records in all of these movies illustrates the concept of information as power, i.e. in each of the stories discussed below the protagonists need to use archival records to seek out secret or hidden facts in order to successfully complete their respective quests.(1)

WARNING: Movie spoilers follow.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) – directed by Jean Negulesco

Mask of Dimitrios

In this classic film noir, based on a work of fiction by Eric Ambler, a writer named Cornelius Leyden sets out to research the elusive past of Dimitrios Makropoulos, an infamous master criminal who may or may not have been murdered in Istanbul.

Leyden’s research takes him from Istanbul, to Athens, and finally to Paris. While in Athens Leyden visits the Bureau of Records where he encounters a helpful records clerk / archivist.

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This government official appears to enjoy his job, and comments that he can likely find what Leyden seeks, namely, a file on the early life of Dimitrios. While looking through the drawers of records he stresses the importance of both organization and patience when seeking to arrange and access records. He goes so far to suggest that the “secret to modern statecraft” is in fact effective organization of information.

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Ultimately the archivist is able to locate a relevant file, revealing that Dimitrous has been known to change his name on occasion as warranted. This information helps Leyden to begin to craft his portrait of the infamous villain.

The Shadow (1994) – directed by Russell Mulcahy

The Shadow

The Shadow, a forerunner of the Batman, uses his intelligence, skill, wealth, and near supernatural abilities to “cloud men’s minds” to hunt down all manner of evildoers. In this iteration, set in the 1930s, The Shadow (also known as Lamont Cranston) is on the trail of Shiwan Khan, a skilled warrior seeking to subjugate the world.

Midway through the film The Shadow loses sight of Khan in front of a vacant lot at an intersection in New York City. He later observes that there is “something very strange about that corner” and asks Margot Lane, his clever assistant and love interest, to “figure out what used to be there.”

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Margot heads to the City Assessors office, and after consulting a range of records is able to report that the lot “…was the site of the old Hotel Monolith. It was finished nearly 10 years ago, but it never opened…the last record is a sale to a far eastern buyer 6 years ago.”

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This information assists The Shadow in determining that in fact the “vacant” lot is not what it appears, with a now “cloaked” Hotel Monolith on the site serving as Khan’s New York headquarters. Soon after the Shadow and Khan have an epic showdown in the hotel, ultimately made possible by the revelations found in the City’s archival records.

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The Phantom (1996) – directed by Simon Wincer

The Phantom

In this movie, also set in the 1930s, Kit Walker has recently taken up the mantle as the Phantom, a responsibility passed from father to son since 1536 (leading to the mistaken impression that the Phantom is immortal). The Phantoms are sworn to combat piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice wherever they find it.

Starting in the fictional African country of Bengalla, this movie follows the Phantom to New York and beyond as he attempts to thwart a power-hungry businessman (Xander Drax) from obtaining three ancient artifacts (the Skulls of Touganda). In the beginning the Phantom is oblivious to what these skulls are, and by extension why Drax wants them. Thankfully the Phantom’s secret lair contains a private library and archives, wherein are kept the handwritten chronicles of the previous Phantoms.

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While consulting one of the volumes the Phantom excitingly explains to his assistant that “it’s all right here in the chronicles” reading aloud from a page that describes the history and powers of the skulls.

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Armed with this valuable information the Phantom is able to continue his quest to stop Drax from obtaining the dangerous skulls, thus saving the world from a would-be dictator.

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National Treasure (2004) – directed by Jon Turteltaub

National Treasure

Arguably one of the best known movies with an archival plot line, in this adventure historian and treasure hunter Benjamin Gates learns of the existence of an invisible treasure map on the back of the USA’s Declaration of Independence. The problem is that while the Declaration is often on display at the National Archives (under bulletproof glass), archival staff do not allow the general public to closely examine the record out of a concern for accidental or purposeful damage.(2)

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Gates and his assistant Riley Poole manage to steal the document from the National Archives, and while doing so they unwittingly involve Abigail Chase, one of the nation’s archivists. The three of them then attempt to locate the treasure before a ruthless gang of criminals can. It is interesting that while dragged in against her will initially, Chase comes to embrace the adventure, although she, like any good archivist, remains fiercely protective of the Declaration document.

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The team is ultimately successful, locating the treasure deep underground in Manhattan. Ever the faithful archivist, Chase is not drawn to the gold jewelry, statues, or other artifacts found in the huge underground cavern, but rather to what she identifies as scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria.

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Conclusion

Hopefully you have enjoyed this brief discussion of the use of archives & records in some of my favourite films. I am certain that my colleagues here in the Archives as well as our blog readers can think of a multitude of additional films, books, graphic novels etc. that also include references to records or archives. Perhaps some of those other stories will be discussed in a future Archives & Popular Culture blog post – stay tuned!

Notes

(1) The concept of information as power in popular literature is discussed in Peter Gillis’ “Of Plots, Secrets, Burrowers and Moles: Archives in Espionage Fiction,” Archivaria 9 (Winter 1979-80)  http://www.archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12561/13714  This is one of my favourite articles – it is a fascinating read!

(2) Interestingly, Canada’s closest equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the 1982 Proclamation of the Constitution Act, has been targeted not by treasure hunters, but by political protesters:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/why-the-charter-has-its-red-blotch/article4100514/

Further reading

Karen Buckely, “The Truth is in the Red Files”: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture,” Archivaria 66 (Fall 2008)  http://www.archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13187/14453

Tania Aldred, Gordon Burr, and Eun Park, “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists,” Archivaria 66 (Fall 2008) http://www.archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13189/14455

Anne Daniel and Amanda Oliver, “Seeking an Identity: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film” (2014) Western Libraries Staff Presentations. Paper 42. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/wlpres/42

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