John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) tells the story of two destitute American men who see a life-changing opportunity when they encounter an old prospector still willing to pursue happiness by seeking gold.
The story takes place in the 1920s in Tampico, Mexico, where Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), two moneyless Americans, meet Howard (Walter Huston), an old gold digger. He informs them about how overflowed with gold the Sierra Madre Mountains are, and when Dobbs wins money at the lottery, he sees it as the sign he has been waiting for served on a platter. So the three men decide to go on a gold-digging journey together.
Based on B. Traven’s novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre explores the matter of greed and gold and how far money challenges someone’s deepest principles. But John Huston also adds to these universal and timeless topics a thrilling plot that involves friendship, treason and paranoia, offering a fascinating story with an unexpected end.
Since Humphrey Bogart was a big star at the time, he was a logical choice to play the lead role. Walter Huston (John Huston’s father), on the other hand, did not immediately accept the idea that he would play a supporting role instead of the usual first lead. Nonetheless, his performance was rated as “the finest piece of acting in any of his films” by John Huston . Indeed, the characters are very convincing and the cast is a major reason why the movie was a huge critical success. And in its many re-releases, it more than earned its original investment of $3 million.
Mostly shot in Mexico, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood films to be mainly filmed outside the United States, making the footage look beautiful and realistic, which is another major strength of the movie. The Treasure of The Sierra Madre is not a predictable western film; it has a few turnarounds (Dobbs’ radical change of behavior which pushes him to do unspeakable acts for gold, Howard’s philosophy on materialism) and unexpected confessions about human nature. Through Dobbs’ character, Huston paints a dark and realistic picture of the way money can eat away at a person from within. While the character is initially depicted as a naive, grateful and hardworking man, he turns little by little into a greedy, paranoid person who gets increasingly corrupted by money.
In comparison, Curtis—who is also on the verge of falling into the same corruption at some point— hesitates to rescue Dobbs when the mine collapses on his companion, thinking he could simply keep all his partner’s gold for himself. Yet his humanity comes right back to the surface, and at this very moment he symbolizes hope, which is nicely illustrated thanks to the contrast of music provided by Max Steiner who puts joyful sonorities as soon as Curtin decides to save Dobbs. It conveys the message that not all men are corrupted by money.
Not all scenes are so serious, though, there are some intentional funny bits inserted especially at the beginning of the movie with the business man in the saloon which mocks traditional western scenes. The fight scene between Curtin, Dobbs and McCormick, for instance, is quite funny to watch since one can definitely tell that the fighting is purposely fake, with no background music whatsoever, just the sounds of the fake punches and slaps. This scene looks like a parody of western fight scenes, with customers watching the three men fight while they are having a drink, as if they were spectators at a show. The funniest part is when Dobbs and Curtin punch McCormick one at a time, pushing him back and forth as if they were playing a tennis game. Likewise, the bandits, and most importantly Gold Hat played by Alfonso Bedoya, also play a big comical part of the movie.
The moral of the film seems to be embodied by Howard’s wisdom, specifically towards the end, when he explains to Curtin that he should care about humans and not take material things for granted because they will always go away and return to nature.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deals with important issues that are definitely still relevant nowadays, so it is no surprise that in 1990 the movie was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In other words, it is a classic that is well worth seeing!
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Direction: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston (based on the novel The Treasure of Sierra Madre by B. Traven
Music: Max Steiner
Production: Henry Blanke
Production company: Warner Bros Pictures production
Running time: 126 minutes
Fred C. Dobbs . . . . . Humphrey Bogart
Howard . . . . . Walter Huston
Bob Curtin . . . . . Tim Holt
James Cody . . . . . Bruce Bennett
Pat McCormick . . . . . Barton MacLane
Gold Hat . . . . . Alfonso Bedoya
El Presidente . . . . . Arturo Soto Rangel
El Jefe . . . . . Manuel Dondé
Pablo . . . . . José Torvay
Pancho . . . . . Margarito Luna