By David Nilsen
John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is ostensibly about greed and the way otherwise decent people change for the worse under its influence, but digging just below the dusty, sun-baked surface of the film we find a variety of intersecting explorations taking place. The film takes a look at American masculinity, inherent character, justice, the unfairness of life, the ways poverty as much as greed can twist the choices a person makes.
Treasure tells the story of three men–white, American–stranded penniless in Tampico, Mexico. We get to know them bumming around for money for meals, taking work where they can, sleeping in shelters. They’re cheated out of wages by a soulless employer, get in a spectacular bar fight with him, and finally pool together just enough money to launch a doomed plan to prospect for gold. Humphrey Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, the brashest of the trio, and the one whose progressive meltdown dictates the choices his companions face across the course of the film. Far from the effortlessly cool Bogey characters of Casablanca and the noirs that made him a star, Bogart here plays a man unhinged, frenzied by paranoia and avarice. Tim Holt plays Curtin, the youngest of the group, a guileless and good-hearted man driven to choices that aren’t natural to his personality. The eldest among them, Howard (played by Walter Huston, the director’s father), is the only one with any experience in such a pursuit. He handles purchasing their supplies and equipment, selecting a location far enough from civilization and travel routes to be thus far unclaimed, and instructing his two clueless companions on how to find and mine gold. They find it, and they mine it. Then things go downhill.
As soon as the group begins amassing gold dust to take back to civilization to stake their claim the tension between them begins to mount. Curtin and Howard are willing to divide the gold upon cashing it in, but Dobbs insists they divide it evenly every night. They each hide their stashes separately. It soon becomes clear getting the gold out of the ground is the easiest part of the endeavor; keeping it long enough to cash it in is the hard part. Dobbs’s paranoia eventually escalates tension beyond the breaking point, and violence shatters the fantastic illusions each of them had held of growing old on the riches of their prospecting. Throw in marauding bandits and a blistering, parched landscape and they are lucky to get away from the mountain alive at all. Not all of them reach civilization that way. In the cruelest twist of fate in the film, none of them end up cashing in from their hellish ordeal.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had a heavy influence on another film that explored the destructive power of greed some sixty years later. Paul Thomas Anderson cited the film as a major influence on his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Anderson watched Treasure repeatedly before making Blood. The two films explore different aspects of this central theme. Where Huston’s film looks at the way greed insinuates itself between partners and sows distrust between individuals who otherwise have no reason to hate each other, Anderson’s film focuses on the way greed isolates an individual and feeds his most narcissistic tendencies.
Parts if The Treasure of the Sierra Madre have not aged as well as others, with some exaggerated acting at points and the subtle underlying racism that tarnishes so many classic Hollywood films, but overall the movie still reads as a fresh, gripping exploration of greed and fear. Walter Huston’s supporting performance, for which he won an Oscar, is the soul of the film and anchors it, providing the viewer a point of perspective from which to view the tragedy unfolding in these distant mountains.
Greenville Public Library’s Third Floor Film Series will be screening The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on Thursday, July 23, at 7:00 p.m. on the third floor of the library. As always free popcorn, candy, and soft drinks will be provided. I will be leading a short discussion after the film. We hope to see you there.