The islands of Malta (Malta, Gozo and Comino) are filled with stories of the Knights of St John who ruled here from 1530 till 1798 when they were throw out by Napoleon. They were only allowed back (in a very small capacity) in 1998.
The Maltese Cross has been used as a logo in Aviation instruments, Train companies, Rugby clubs, Rowing clubs, the Garhwal rifle infantry of India, Medical corps, Motocross, and the Vacheron Constantine Swiss watch.
Gozo, the northern island is thought by many to be the mythical island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso in the Homer’s Odyssey, and the toy Maltese dog, once a favorite of the ladies of ancient Rome, did actually come from these islands.
However, the story of the Maltese Falcon is mostly unknown on the island of Malta. Although the film is #21 on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films of all time, there is only one souvenir shop on the island of Malta that sells replicas of the black bird.
In the 1941 film classic, ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) tells the story of the Black Bird to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart).
“In 1539 the Knights of Rhodes persuaded the Emperor Charles V to give them the Island of Malta. He made one condition. They were to pay him, each year, the tribute of one falcon in acknowledgement that Malta was still under Spain. The Knights were profoundly grateful to emperor Charles for his generosity towards them. They hit on the happy thought of sending him for the first year’s tribute, not an insignificant live bird but a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to feet with the finest jewels of the coffers. They sent this foot-high jeweled bird to Charles, who was in Spain. They sent it in a galley commanded by a member of the Order. It never reached Spain. A famous admiral of buccaneers took the Knight’s galley and the bird. In 1713 it turned up in Sicily. In 1840 it appeared in Paris. It had, by that time, acquired a coat of black enamel so that it looked like nothing more than a fairly interesting black statuette. In disguise, Sir, it was, you might say, kicked around Paris for more than three score years by private owners too stupid to see what it was under the skin…”
In reality, Gutman’s story wasn’t far from the historical truth, at least the truth about the tribute of a live falcon. The Maltese Falcon is actually the Mediterranean Peregrine Falcon, prized for its diving speed of 200 mph. It was made a protected species on the Maltese islands in 1980.
In payment for the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, the Knights of Malta had to give the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his mother, Queen Joanna the Mad of Castile, one Peregrine Falcon every year on All Saints Day. The ceremonial tribute was dutifully paid every year until the Knights were thrown out of Malta in 1798.
For John Huston’s 1941 film, a few Black Bird statues were made of the famous Falcon, two lead ones and few plaster ones because Humphrey Bogart’s arms got tired from holding the 50lb lead birds for long periods of time. The current value of an original lead Maltese Falcon is around $2,000,000, which was, according to Kaspar Gutman, was the value of the bird in the 1941 film.
In 1994, John Konstin of San Francisco bid $150,000 for one of the lead statues but that was all he had to spend. The winning bid was $398,500. Konstin owned John’s Grill, a San Francisco hangout of Dashiell Hammett, the author of the Maltese Falcon. Konstin turned the restaurant into a memorial to Hammett and filled it with movie posters and memorabilia. The Black Bird would have been his piece de resistance.
In 1995, Elisha Cook Jr, the actor who played Wilmer Cook, the inexperienced gunsel in the film gave John’s Grill an autographed replica of the Maltese Falcon. It wasn’t an original but it was signed by the only remaining member of the cast.
On February 12, 2007, the statue was stolen. John Konstin offered a $25,000 reward but the bird was never found. It has disappeared into the fabric of film noir, forever hunted down by the likes of Kaspar Gutman, Joel Cairo and Sam Spade.
At the end of the film, Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) picks up the lead bird and says to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), “What is it”? Bogart replies, “it’s the stuff dreams are made of”.