Note: This content has been revised based on updated information about the cargo capacity of the trucks used in the film.
“Damn, this is heavy.” – Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus Carver
He said it well. Gold is a dense element. Its immense value per gram makes it the perfect stuff to jam into a vault. In a few rooms, you can store the revenue of a nation. Try doing that with pictures of Ben Franklin; you’ll find you need a warehouse.
Much to the joy of Hollywood, there really are vaults gleaming with bricks of the stuff. But, could you really rob one the way that it’s done in Die Hard 3?
The value of the gold in the film is $140 billion. This is how much Simon claims to be stealing, though a few bars got left behind at the vault excavation. We can assume that Simon’s men were able to load almost all of the gold into their 14 dump trucks, because Simon says the dump truck John McClane hijacks contains $13 billion worth of gold.
Actually, dividing $140 billion over 14 trucks, an estimate of $10 billion per truck would be sensible. So either Simon knows that one has a little extra (it was the last one after all) or he’s just inflating the number to try and get McClane to take the bribe.
By weight, even $10 billion in gold couldn’t fit in one truck.
The dump truck McClane steals is either a Mack R685ST or an Autocar S64U (They use both in the action scenes). This sort of dump truck can generally carry between 20 and 30 tons of material. For our estimate, we’ll use 25 tons. The movie was released in 1995, and during that year, gold was valued at around $385 USD per troy ounce, or approximately $5,600 per pound.
That means that by weight, the truck in the film could hold about $280 million in 1995 gold. And $10 billion would require almost 36 dump trucks (like the one in the film) to transport.
The total $140 billion in 1995 gold would load about 500 trucks as used in the film… a far cry from the 14 shown in the movie.
Of course, maybe the director (John McTiernan, who also helmed the technically inept Hunt for Red October) was thinking of volume. You know, if somehow you were able to fill a dump truck to the brim with gold bars, and weight was not the limiting issue.
I can’t be certain of all the dump trucks used in the film, but for this example, let’s assume the truck can hold 12 cubic yards of material (That’s a fairly standard amount, when loading dirt and other loose material). Let’s also assume that all the gold bricks were perfectly stacked, with no empty space.
This gets you close. I calculate that if this entire space was filled with gold, it would weigh about 390,000 pounds. In 1995 dollars, that’s about $2.2 billion per truck, all the way to the top.
Calculated by volume, 64 trucks would get you to the $140 billion mark.
Of course, using volume measurements is downright crazy. You just can’t put 200 tons of gold into a truck designed to carry 20 or 30 tons.
Suspension (of disbelief)
It’s the movies, so it seems like we should hold out tongues and feign acceptance. $140 billion in 14 dump trucks? Sure why not. That’s what we told ourselves before we started doing the math. With a disparity this great, it’s interesting to see the numbers.
The film makers could have doubled the number of trucks, and gotten away with saying they contained $8 billion. Of course, that wouldn’t be enough money to wreck the national economy. Then again, with the way we throw money at the middle east, perhaps $140 billion wouldn’t cripple us either.
The alternative—filming 500 loaded dump trucks escape from Manhattan on a weekday afternoon—would raise even more eyebrows among the city’s millions of commuters.
Next time, I hope he turgs the sucker. Today, John McTiernan has recognized the mistakes concerning the weight of gold. Of course, being 35 times off the mark, is bad even by Bruckheimer standards.
For more on Hollywood’s magical power over weight and volume, read Cockeyed.com’s “How Much is Inside a Million Dollars.”