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Fortune & Glory: The Greatest Treasure-Hunting Movies

In 2009, arts dealer Forrest Fenn hid a real-life treasure chest full of gold and jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. For over a decade, hundreds of thousands of regular folks parsed Fenn’s self-published poetry in search of the buried booty. Until earlier in June, anyway, when Fenn announced that hunters found his fabled fortune. Though more lawsuits than Lara Croft ever faced riddled the search, the sense of adventure it created was still palpable—and adventure is something Hollywood’s greatest treasure hunts have in overwhelming supply.

From the madcap to the swashbuckling, the Old West to the highways of California, heroes and heroines have risked life and limb in search of all manner of… well, okay, it’s really only either gold or supernatural relics. But that’s all right, because it’s never really been about the treasure; it’s all about the thrill of the hunt.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Warner Bros.

When word of a possible massive gold strike reaches Humphrey Bogart’s down-on-his-luck oil worker Fred Dobbs, he joins forces with a grizzled prospector. They hunt down the fortune in the treacherous Sierra Madre mountains. John Huston’s seminal study of greed, paranoia, and betrayal has inspired everyone from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to Sam Raimi and Mel Brooks.

Treasure Island (and Muppet Treasure Island)
Treasure Island (1950)

RKO Radio Pictures

Disney’s first fully live-action movie, Treasure Island is, arguably, the quintessential adventure film for the studio. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, the movie follows young Jim Hawkins and the pirate Long John Silver. They embark on a twisty and remarkably violent search for buried treasure.

The 1950 film has influenced much of what we think we know about pirates. It’s been reinterpreted countless times since. The pinnacle of those cover versions, of course, being 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island. Tim Curry, Billy Connolly and literal boatloads of Muppets? That’s how you improve on a classic, folks.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worl

United Artists

A who’s who of early 1960s Hollywood, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World combines a treasure hunt with a road trip. Five teams of well-meaning motorists set out on a frantic and increasingly cutthroat race across California to retrieve a dead criminal’s buried fortune. Shenanigans and literally dozens of big-name cameos, including Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges ensue.

Titan A.E.
Titan A.E.

20th Century Fox

Titan A.E. is not remembered well. The movie was Fox Animation Studios’ second and final effort after Anastasia, and was overshadowed by the studio closing just days after it was released in June 2000. The film deserves better.

Years after Earth exploded, Cale Tucker discovers he’s in possession of a star-map to the mysterious spaceship Titan. Teaming up with pilot Akima and a trio of aliens to find the spaceship, the journey is, like any good treasure hunt, rife with treachery and greed and romance. But this time in space!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

United Artists

The third and final installment of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns. During the tail-end of the Civil War, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach’s eponymous trio team up to search fora stolen cache of Confederate gold. Things obviously don’t go as planned and the film ends in the famous, Ennio Morricone-scored stand-off, one of the tensest moments in movie history.

The Mummy
The Mummy

Universal Pictures

Though most other iterations of The Mummy stick solely to horror, 1999’s Brendan Fraser-led film is a lot more Indiana Jones than Dracula—right down to the rival treasure hunters and questionable archaeology. While initially about looting graves in search of a lost city of gold, the movie eventually evolves. It becomes about valuing librarians and reading books to stop the end of the world. If only it were that easy in real life.

National Treasure
National Treasure

Walt Disney Pictures

National Treasure finds Nicolas Cage’s Benjamin Gates stealing the Declaration of Independence in search of Revolutionary War-era riches, while the sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, has him kidnapping the president to prove his ancestor’s innocence in the murder of Abraham Lincoln. That’s before the reveal of the location of a city of solid gold.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Paramount Pictures

The early 2000s Tomb Raider movies star Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Honestly, that’s all you really need to know. She carries both films through sheer force of will.

The first movie is full of puzzles, murder-statues and Illuminati mischief. The second installment, clumsily titled Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, is about finding the literal Pandora’s Box. Are they good movies? Critics resoundingly say no. Are the DVDs sitting on your shelf anyway? Of course they are.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Disney

Though later Pirates of the Caribbean films (and Johnny Depp’s IRL behavior) have seemingly gone out of their way to tarnish the franchise’s reputation, The Curse of the Black Pearl remains a rollicking adventure film. And though the hunted treasure is, technically, only a single piece of cursed Aztec gold, all the Treasure Island-y tropes of betrayal and goldlust and good-natured, historically inaccurate piracy are plundered with aplomb.

The Goonies
The Goonies

Warner Bros.

The Goonies takes the idea of a treasure hunt and places it firmly in the 1980s. A ragtag group of misfits finds an ancient treasure map in an attic and sets out to claim One-Eyed Willy’s pirate fortune as their own. Throw in some mobsters, a lot more swearing than you’d normally expect from a children’s movie and the ticking clock of an evil country club being evil, and you’ve got yourself a nostalgia-fest. It’s still very much a part of the pop culture landscape.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Lucasfilm

Take the best parts of classic Hollywood serials and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, couple them with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at their peak, and Harrison Ford with more swagger than should be legally allowable, and you’ve got yourself Indiana Jones. It’s the character (and franchise) that would shape almost every action/adventure movie afterwards.

Except for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We’re … really not sure what happened there. Let’s hope Indy’s future is brighter than that.

Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures