The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). 126 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Fred C. Dobbs), Walter Huston (as Howard), Tim Holt (as Bob Curtin), Bruce Bennett (as James Cody), Barton MacLane (as Pat McCormick), Alfonso Bedoya (as Gold Hat), Arturo Soto Rangel (as El Presidente), Manuel Dondé (as El Jefe), José Torvay (as Pablo), Margarito Luna (as Pancho), Robert Blake (as boy selling lottery tickets), John Huston (as American in Tampico wearing white suit). Screenplay by John Huston. Music by Max Steiner.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of director John Huston’s masterpieces. It stars his father, Walter Huston, as a tough old miner who leads two aspiring prospectors into the mountains of Mexico in pursuit of gold. They do find gold, but they also discover a darker side to themselves that leads to betrayal and death. Its story about the corrupting power of wealth is in line with another movie that ends badly in the desert, Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterwork Greed (1925). Perhaps even more than Greed, however, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a cautionary tale that has a distinct fable-like quality, making it seem timeless and universal in spite of the fact that it clearly takes place in Latin America in the 1920s.

Two Americans, Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (played by Tim Holt), are down and out in 1920s Tampico, Mexico. In their hostel, Dobbs and Curtin have heard the American Howard (Walter Huston) tell stories about prospecting, and they enlist his help to turn their fortunes around. The three men purchase supplies and head for the mountains in Durango, where they look for gold. Dobbs and Curtin are amazed at the old man’s stamina and expertise. Soon the three men have an expert camp set up and are mining like professionals. They measure out gold dust at night and talk about their plans. Dobbs suffers a head injury when the mine shaft partially collapses. After his accident he becomes exceedingly avaricious. The trio is overtaken by another prospector, James Cody, who knows that they have found gold and wants a part of it; but before the men can do anything about him, they are attacked by bandits. With the aid of the Federales (federal police), the men rebuff the bandits, and Cody is killed.

Shortly thereafter, Howard’s help is enlisted when a local native boy nearly drowns. He then returns to camp to close up the mine with Dobbs and Curtin, who are calling it quits. The natives request that Howard return to their village for a time, and he entrusts his share of gold to his fellow prospectors until he can meet up with them. In the meantime, Dobbs has begun to go quite mad. He journeys back to civilization with Curtin and the gold, which they tie in sacks to their burros. However, Dobbs becomes convinced that Curtin is trying to steal his gold and kill him, and one night he shoots Curtin, who crawls off. Dobbs nears town with the burros and gold, but during a wind storm the same bandits overtake him, release the gold dust into the air (thinking it is merely dust), kill Dobbs, and take the burros. The bandits are subsequently captured and shot. Meanwhile, Curtin has crawled to the native settlement, where his wounds are treated. He is reunited with Howard, and the men ride towards town, where they find the sacks that held their gold blowing in the wind. Howard howls with laughter, and the men agree to part ways.

Because it resembles a fable about the nature of fortune, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre reminds me of another great story about men whose adventures involve both treasure and death: Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, a moral anecdote that is one of the most fascinating and complex stories in the medieval Canterbury Tales. In the Pardoner’s Tale, three men make a pact to slay death. During their quest they encounter an old man who also claims to be looking for death and directs them to an oak tree where he says death lives. The three men locate the tree and find treasure there. They pledge to share it, but as their greed intensifies, they end up killing each other over it instead, finding in the end both death and a treasure they cannot keep.

The similarities between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Pardoner’s Tale are intriguing. Like the Pardoner’s Tale, the movie focuses on three men with gold on their minds. We might think of the experienced miner Howard who guides Dobbs and Curtin towards the mountain of gold as another version of the Pardoner’s old man. And of course, the movie’s conclusion is tinged with a similar irony: the Pardoner’s youths think they will kill death but find treasure, and in their efforts to protect it, they lose it and are killed instead. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Howard implies that death is the natural outcome of the gold they seek. They ultimately lose their treasure when they find death, and their fortune is squandered in a spectacular act of dramatic irony. Moreover, as I mentioned, the movie has an almost primal, fable-like quality, much as the Pardoner’s Tale does. We can locate this attribute in the film’s focus on three characters (three being a special number in folklore), the mysterious and provocative lack of detailed background stories for the three men, and our sense that there is an underlying and dire maxim to be gleaned from the narrative about the pursuit of wealth. In this way, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shares the textures of this seminal medieval text but also draws on universal cultural concerns.

The Pardoner’s Tale, like many moral tales, has a maxim: radix malorum est cupiditas, or “greed is the root of all evil.” But if The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a moral fable like the Pardoner’s Tale, it is not entirely clear what its maxim would be. It might seem at first that the Pardoner’s maxim would apply here, but upon further inspection it is not clear that avarice alone drives even the worst of the characters (Dobbs). Although Dobbs becomes extremely greedy, mistrustful, paranoid, and murderous, it is not obvious that his descent into dysphoria is solely attributable to his contact with gold. Halfway through the story, while working in the mines one day, a shaft collapses and Dobbs suffers an injury to his head. Does this injury contribute to Dobbs’s madness, and if so, to what extent? The movie makes Dobbs’s descent overdetermined, meaning that its commentary on the corrupting powers of gold is not straightforward or simple.

Along those lines, we might also observe that in contrast to Dobbs, Howard’s relationship to gold actually seems fairly healthy. He is the one who tells the men that gold corrupts and suggests that they bail at the $25,000 mark–more than enough for him to retire on, he points out. But the other men are nowhere near retirement age, they argue, so the mining continues at their behest. Howard is also exceedingly trusting of his companions, even though he barely knows them at the story’s onset. When the natives whose child he saves demand that he return with them to their village for a time, Howard temporarily entrusts his share of the gold to Dobbs and Curtin. Even Curtin behaves fairly decently to his fellow miners. True, he exhibits a callous impulse when he nearly abandons Dobbs in the collapsed mine shaft; we see him turn away from the mine and Dobbs, but then we see him reconsider. He chooses to behave compassionately and save his companion. Additionally, all three men are at their worst when the prospector James Cody arrives at the camp and declares that they will have to cut him in or kill him—they decide to kill him. Still, it is not obvious that they will all go through with the murder; we notice Curtin and Howard hesitate. These moments highlight the men’s moral quandaries, which are very real, but they also do not add up to a linear progression from innocence to avarice.

Moreover, because the men never get to cash in their riches, we only hear some of what they plan to spend it on, and their fantasy spending is actually rather moderate. Dobbs wants a meal, a shave, and a woman. We have seen him spend money on the first two already in Tampico; the implication that the third will also be paid for underscores Dobbs’s dissolute nature, but with the exception of the presumed prostitute, his dream relates to what his life in the first part of the film was like—not a fantastic future. Curtin’s dreams of buying a fruit farm so that he can revisit the days of his youth spent as an orchard worker also seem like a logical outgrowth of his past experiences. And Howard merely wants to retire. So although their greed may at times be the story’s focus, their desires nevertheless in these campfire discussions seem temperate.

Dobbs becomes quite mad in the end, steals the other men’s gold, and attempts to murder Curtin—these are extreme actions, to be sure. Yet the movie’s presentation of events is actually rather temperate and conservative in yet another regard. What I mean is that for a movie in which men are devoted full-time to the discovery of gold, we actually do not often see gold, and when we do, it does not seem particularly luxurious. Famously, of course, the movie’s bandits (led by the wonderful Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat) do not even recognize the gold dust that weighs down the men’s burros as something valuable or worth preserving. When they search the burros for goods, they are especially intrigued by the hides that adorn them and are also interested in the meager animals themselves. We later learn that they are convinced Dobbs was taking the burros to market and was trying to weigh them down with bags of dust to fetch a higher price. To the bandits, the value of the scene is in the burros and the hides, the things they can easily see.

But lest we should think that the bandits are simply ignorant lowlifes who do not know wealth when they see it, we know from watching earlier scenes of this movie that Dobbs and Curtin cannot correctly identify gold ore until they are taught to (they become excited by pyrite, fool’s gold, instead). Moreover, when Howard does pan for it in front of them, they comment that the gold looks a lot like dirt. Even when they begin to mine successfully and bountifully, we rarely get a glimpse of sparkling and photogenic gold. For the most part, this is not a movie that flashes treasure at us relentlessly. Its wealth is hidden in scales and buckets, measured out at night, stashed in burlap sacks under gila monster-infested rocks, and fussed over by three grimy men with shaggy beards and unkempt hair. If Dobbs had told the bandits what he was carrying, I do not know if they would have believed him—not merely because they are coarse characters, but also because we have to wonder: would we either?

The men’s pursuit of a disguised treasure reminds me of another Bogart movie, The Maltese Falcon, also directed by John Huston. In that movie, another trio of characters pursues a fortune in the form of an antique jewel-encrusted falcon, covered in lead, which Bogart as detective Sam Spade refers to late in the movie as “the stuff that dreams are made of.” A fortune is lost in that movie, too, but whereas The Maltese Falcon is a stylish noir, confined to dark urban apartments and laden with slinky dialogue, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is rough and bare, both in terms of its scrub-brush locale and the emotional energies of its characters after days and weeks of the hard life of renegade miners.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has something else that the hardboiled Maltese Falcon lacks: whereas the latter movie focuses on the detective Sam Spade, who has been touched by the evil and deception he investigates, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre offers us the character Howard, a shrewd central character who is aware of the dark side of mining but is also seemingly uncorrupted by it. Roger Ebert wrote that Howard’s story eventually “evaporate[s] into convention”; for me, however, Howard is the heart of the movie, whether he is leading the men to treasure early on or performing charitable acts for the nearby village later in the movie. His trajectory shows that although he has seen a good deal, his conscience remains intact. He is the only one who suggests atoning for what they have done as miners when in a final karmic act, he insists on staying to close up the mountain once they have finished with it. Howard freely acknowledges the damage that mining has done to the mountain site and that it has also, in a way, done to them—perhaps that is why he laughs the loudest when they lose everything. Unlike the fantasy of the Maltese Falcon’s promised riches, which that movie’s characters pledge to pursue faithfully and continually in the final scene, the dream of gold is always a dream to the elderly miner, something intangible that could be easily taken away.

Howard seems to joy in his harsh reality. His effusive, laughing footwork on top of the mining site when he first discovers it seems to be the dance of a mad old toothless kook (Walter Huston performed the role without his dentures at his son’s request), but it is not: it is the wild hurrah of a wise sage, intoxicated with the twisted beauty of the fact that the men have been standing ignorantly over their own dirty fortune. The aged man’s bellowing softshoe is one of the highlights of an amazing performance that garnered Walter Huston an Academy Award, so I am not alone in singling him out.

Later when Howard arrives at the site where the gold dust has blown away and he cackles into the wind, his howls of glee and the desert gusts mingle together impressively. The wind takes and the laughing man resigns himself to what has been taken. In this way, his laughter becomes the hallmark of irony in the picture: he laughs at the foolishness of the men as they stand on wealth and at their foolishness again as they stand poor in the midst of the riches that have been taken up by the wind—a fantastic treasure that is all around them but cannot be held. This last moment of irony feels otherworldly, like a Zen koan, a strange and ancient-seeming vignette that is both riddle-like and transparent. The final scene with its cool acceptance of disastrous fate and its crushing honesty about the whims of fortune is a microcosm of the whole movie and the closest we get in this film to the expression of a cinematic maxim. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be an adventure story about the baser impulses of men, but its tough and dust-encrusted characters cross over into major philosophical territory that places the movie among the greats of the twentieth century.

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