As I sit and type in this infernal LA heat I feel it only appropriate to write about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The great John Huston (Moby Dick, Wise Blood) directed this golden classic in 1948 which was based on the novel of the same name written by the mysterious B. Traven. Much of it was filmed on location in the sweltering heat of Mexico. The film starred Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Caine Mutiny), Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine), and John’s father Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln, The Devil and Daniel Webster) as a ragged trio of down-and-out fortune hunters seeking to find gold in a cruel 1920s Mexican desert. It is a rich and complex film that boldly neglects sentimentality in favor of a delirious story about greed, betrayal, paranoia, and the death of human decency in the face of all three.
John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had teamed up previously for Huston’s first film and solid noir classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and would pair up again after Sierra Madre for more unmissable classics, Key Largo (1948) with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson and The African Queen (1951) with Katherine Hepburn. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is another first rate character drama loaded with tension and texture. Its a fantastic classic not to be missed.
The gunfire from Federales executing bandits rings in the distance. People peddle their wares on every corner and all around is the inescapably dense feeling of stifling heat and the odor of too many humans living too close to each other. A sweaty, grizzled hobo, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart), begs for pennies in the chaotic and colorful post Mexican Revolution town of Tampico. He is a self-professed “fellow American who is down on his luck” who sleeps on park benches and lives from drink to drink. Dobbs finds a fellow homeless American named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together they take a construction job from a shifty American who cheats his workers and runs off with their pay. Life is going nowhere for Dobbs and Curtin until they meet an old, penniless prospector named Howard (Walter Huston in his Academy Award winning role) in a seedy hostel. Howard jokes about the horrors he has seen and the wisdom he has gained from his many years on the trail mining gold. Dobbs doesn’t buy into the magical power of gold. He understands it all depends on what kind of a man finds it. Though he seems to be a bit cracked, the good-natured Howard is welcomed into the group of gringos by Curtin. The three invest all of what little they have attained during their cruel lives to obtain burros and supplies for a long journey and hopefully a profitable dig for gold in the Sierra Madre.
Much trekking and much sweating leads them into the wilds of untamed Mexico. Jungles, deserts, banditos, and sore feet all urge them to turn back, but the hearty old prospector puts their young muscles to shame as he jovially bounds onwards and upwards as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Just as exhaustion sets in and Dobbs and Curtin prepare to turn back, Howard cackles maniacally and calls them a couple of jackasses as he claps and performs an impromptu jig, for lo and behold the very dust beneath their feet sparkles with the tantalizing hues of that which they seek: gold. They quickly set up a mine and begin their panhandling. Always wary of strangers—for the perch is precarious—they proceed to extract riches from the earth. Without permit or claim they could be run off by the government, bigger mining companies, or slaughtered by banditos. Before long the old man’s words of warning about greed and mistrust set in and Dobbs, concerned about his share of the prize requests they begin dividing up the goods every night. Howard amiably acquiesces. Soon each man is hiding their share at night, lest they get ripped off by their partners. Howard seems to be the only one who retains a peaceful, logical, level head about the matter as he has seen this sort of thing many times before. Curtin regains his balance after he rescues Dobbs from a cave in, but Dobbs has become noticeably shaken by the discovery of gold. Dobbs mutters under his breath and talks to himself and exhibits apparent mistrust of the other two men.
More gold is being taken from the weary mountain every day and the beards grow thick on the three gringos and their clothes grow more tattered and dirty. Curtin returns from running errands in the nearest town and is followed by another would-be treasure hunter, Cody (Bruce Bennett). Dobbs will have no intruders to divide his share of the gold and convinces Howard and Curtin that they need to kill him, but they wind up needing all the guns they can get when a group of banditos who “don’t need no stinking badges” show up. Their leader (Alfonso Bedoya) toys with Dobbs before a desperate fire fight ensues. Following this skirmish it becomes increasingly apparent that Dobbs cannot be trusted and has indeed sold his soul to the treasure of the Sierra Madre. Things only heat up when the team is separated. Howard is asked to stand in as medicine man for some Indians who have a little boy who nearly drowned. The pure-hearted Curtin is then left alone with the old man’s share of the loot and a crazed Dobbs (in full on greedy Daffy Duck mode). Betrayal, paranoia, greed, and violence all permeate from the scenes that follow. The film throws a few more shocks and shots of human and moral deterioration at us before it comes to a bittersweet conclusion that truly satisfies like a punch in the guts…but it tickles a little too.
This is a stand out film for the period. It is decidedly more dangerous and cynical. Huston and his amazing cast manage to conjure so many internal emotions and build so much tension in every scene. This film feels as hot and desperate as the three protagonists must feel. Real danger lurks in the shadows when a cluster of quiet Indians approach a campfire. Real terror prods one’s heart when the banditos show up and outnumber our “heroes.” There is suspense and devastation within each frame. There is an unflinching crazed look in Bogart’s eyes that continuously grows throughout the film and is difficult to shake. There have been many films about greed and the loss of humanity in the face of such greed, but perhaps The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the finest examples of the subject.
It’s easy to see the inspiration P.T. Anderson must have gotten from this film for his own There Will Be Blood (2007). Anyone who only knows Bogart as the hard-boiled detective needs to see this film. From each characters’ shrouded uncertain background and their even further cloaked futures, this film develops its own greatness. We follow the lives of “fellow Americans who are down on their luck” and we hope they will overcome the maddening heat and the ecstasy of gold because we really journey alongside them. John Huston won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director, losing Best Picture to Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. As a big fan of both Huston and Humphrey Bogart I cannot recommend this great film enough. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a truly unforgettable movie experience and amply worthy of its classic status.
Top 10 Reasons to See Treasure of the Sierra Madre
1. Humphrey Bogart plays against type and is awesome.
2. Great early location filming in Mexico.
3. Guys grow beards in it.
4. Considered a top ranking classic for many critics, film buffs, and directors.
5. It’s uncharacteristically bleak for the time it was made.
6. John Huston is a movie making beast.
7. It influenced many films to follow.
8. Bugs Bunny references Bogart’s Dobbs character in several cartoons (mostly the ones with the penguin who cries ice-cubes).
9. Walter Huston’s character is iconic and unforgettable—the quintessential crusty, old prospector guy.
10. Four Oscar nominations and three wins.
BONUS 11. The little boy next to Bogey in the first picture is Robert Blake.
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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 20, 2010