The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has nearly everything I could ask for in a Hollywood classic, a tight and well-told story, legendary actors at their best, and solid production value. The subject matter runs deep, as it even tackles a heavy topic such as capitalism. It may even be the first time that cinema provided us with a clinically paranoid protagonist at that. And all of this with with no love story, which is an indication that this film can purely sustain itself with its This movie deserves its spot as one of the greatest classics ever, hands down.
- Director: John Huston
- Screenwriters: John Huston, Bruno Traven
- Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
We begin in Mexico in 1925. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a middle-aged American who’s down on his luck and begging for money on the streets. Making matters worse, when he lands a quick job helping to build an oil rig in scorching heat, things don’t turn out well. Without much to his name, Dobbs buys one-twentieth of a lottery ticket, winning a bit of cash. Though he could have won more had he paid full price, he makes enough to jump into a tempting venture. One night, in the company of other downtrodden and homeless men, he listens to an old man named Howard (Walter Huston) who speaks about prospecting for gold in the mountains. The old man’s logic seems sound. Needing a partner, Dobbs makes an agreement with Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), with both eager to gather materials in search of treasure.
Dobbs and Curtin are amateurs, so they bring Howard along as a guide. After initial struggles, they eventually find gold, which brings the group more trouble than they anticipated. As they say “I thought all there was to finding gold was to pick it up and put in in our sacks.” Dobbs and Curtin go from being partners to having major trust issues. Earlier in their journey, Dobbs is heard saying to Curtin, “I owe my life to you, partner,” but this level of respect becomes strained, and Howard, a wise older man with little ambition for enormous wealth, does his best to admonish them of the things that gold can do to a man’s soul: “We wounded this mountain, the least we can do is close the wound after all the wealth she’s given us”.
For Howard, all he wants is to make enough to take care of himself in old age, setting up an old business and having time to read comics and adventure stories. Curtin declares that he’d become a fruit grower, mainly based on his nostalgia for the San Joaquin Valley. Dobbs, on the other hand, in a very telling way, shows his superficial ambition when he states, “I’d go to a store and order a dozen of everything. I’d order food just to ask the waiter to take it back”. Suspicion and paranoia start creeping in. Exacerbating matters further, the group has to contend with bandits, corrupt “federales”, and local tribesmen.
Behind this film is the story of Bruno Traven, which is actually the pen name of the author who wrote the original source novel. Mr. Traven lived a mysterious existence and nearly every detail of his life has been disputed. There is very little proven about him, regardless he wrote great fiction (Macario, a 1960 film based on one of his novels is one of my favorite movies), and he packed his stories with political messages. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre plays out as a sharp attack on capitalism, forcing us to contemplate the meaning of value. For some time Traven refused to have his novel published in any capitalist country.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
This is a “classic” for a reason. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains great, so thank you for pointing me to it. It functions as a parable on capitalism, and in our modern era it resonates deeper still. You are right when you say the “movie has never really been about gold but about character, and Bogart fearlessly makes Fred C. Dobbs into a pathetic, frightened, selfish man – so sick we would be tempted to pity him, if he were not so undeserving of pity”. By allowing the audience to go deeper into the psychosis of the character, Sierra Madre shows how someone’s conscience can deteriorate. Dobbs is the tragic hero, brought down by his flaws. As you said it comes “in the Joseph Conrad tradition, using adventure not as an end in itself but as a test of its characters”. I was thoroughly entertained not only by Humphrey Bogart, but also by Walter Huston’s performance, which is masterful. But, as you point out, ” Listen to the way the senior Huston talks, rapid-fire, without pause, as if he’s briefing them on an old tale and doesn’t have time to waste on nuance.” Huston’s manner of speaking is a major reason why the film grabs you. You feel like you’ve entered a fairy tale as though it’s “story-time” and you can’t wait to see what happens.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Treasure of the Sierra Madre ? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Goldfinger