The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by John Huston

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is wonderfully ugly.  In it three men set out to hit it rich mining for gold.  Rather quickly they find what they’re looking for, but the challenge then becomes keeping it.  They must deal with forces from outside and forces from within, and in the end nothing quite works out, with the film closing on a couple characters’ desperate, nihilistic laughter.

The main character is Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), a vagabond when we first meet him.  He wanders the streets of Tampico begging for money with his head down so that when he continually runs into the same American tourist (played by director John Huston), he doesn’t realize who it is.

Eventually he finds work for a crooked man, alongside new friend Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and when they aren’t paid what they owed they find the man and beat him senseless before taking precisely what they’re owed and not a dollar more.  It’s a moment that deliberately establishes Dobbs’ morality and prudence.

Later they come across an older prospector, Howard (played by John Huston’s father Walter), waxes poetic on the promise and consequences of mining for gold.  Dobbs and Curtin figure what the hell and set out to make it rich, brining alongside Howard as a guide.

They start off as unbelievably wise men when it comes to anticipating a fortune but also comically naive when it comes to the actual terrain up in the mountains.  First off Dobbs and Curtin huff and puff their way up the hillside before losing their minds over fool’s gold while Howard gleefully climbs up ahead of them with tireless energy.

As they first start to gather the gold they speak with level heads about how to split it up and when, ensuring that none of them betrays the other.  It’s Dobbs, in fact, who ignites these discussions because of his own growing paranoia.  Before long the three of them have hidden their respective shares of the profit, buried nearby, and not long after Dobbs is ranting and raving to himself.  His subsequent descent into madness is rather swift.

One of the other noteworthy characters here is a man named Cody (Bruce Bennett).  He tracks Curtin to their mining encampment and surmises that they aren’t hunters, as Curtin claimed, but rather miners.  He calmly, rationally gives them three options: Kill him, let him go or make him a partner.  Cody then leaves them some privacy to discuss amongst themselves, and in a matter of minutes the gang has calmly decided to kill the man.

It’s a moment almost amusing in how disorienting it is.  We’re led to believe that they’ll have to include him as a partner, but they come to the simple conclusion that he’ll have to be put down.  Before they can, however, they are descended upon by bandits leading to a gunfight in which Cody’s help proves important, though he is shot and killed before it’s all said and done.

This paves the way, at least for a time, for Dobbs to take over as the central antagonist.  His paranoia knows no bounds, and he completes his descent into madness by shooting Curtin before being ambushed himself.  By this time Howard will be away in a village, treated like a kind thanks to his help in saving a local boy’s life.

Dobbs then staggers off by himself, a shell of a man who likes like should he die he might just burst into dust. His death, in fact, will occur offscreen, surely the most unheroic way to go and a firm answer to the question posed early in the film of whether gold can indeed corrupt a man’s soul.

Curtin survives the gunshot and later meets up with Howard.  By then they discover that the gold which was taken from Dobbs by the bandits was mistaken for dirt and ignored.  The bandits instead took only Dobbs supplies and donned his ill-fitting clothing.  Later they are executed by the federales.  Nobody wins.

The film then ends with Curtin and Howard discovering there is no more gold and laughing about it, laughing from exhaustion and disbelief, all their labor and the lives of Cody and Dobbs amounting to nothing.

It’s a familiar tale by now, seen most recently in the Netflix movie Triple Frontier.  In that a group of former soldiers track down a fortune with surprising ease only to struggle to bring the money back home.  They fight off those tailing them and each other as their mental states begin to lapse.  But for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this was released soon after the end of World War II, a time of certain prosperity.  It’s called the Baby Boom for a reason.

The film is ugly and determined, showing both the enterprise of the individual but also the ease of a soul corrupted.  Bogart plays a convincing antagonist, and to see the man from Casablance summarily executed offscreen is both disorienting and poignant.  He’s the screen hero of World War II, in a sense, and hear he’s the personification of ‘dust to dust.’

Up Next: Stuber (2019), Silent Rage (1982), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

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