THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

  • Director: John Huston
  • Writers: John Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven
  • Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, and Alfonso Bedoya
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#38), 3 Oscars (Best Director – John Huston, Best Supporting Actor – Walter Huston, Best Adapted Screenplay), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Picture)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on TCM App, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

When Warner Bros. decided to finance John Huston’s adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by the reclusive novelist B. Traven, they thought they were agreeing to make an exciting adventure movie. They were perturbed when Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and the rest of the cast and crew returned from months of location shooting in the Mexican wilderness having gone over the budget and made what is basically one long parable about human greed. What they could not have realized is that the movie would not only be a financial success, but is still watched and influential over 70 years later. This is Bogart playing off his prior persona, in which he’s often tough and craggy but underneath a good guy. Here, he might start out as a mostly good guy who descends all the way into madness under pressure.

Bogart and Tim Holt play Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin, two out-of-work American drifters hanging out in a Mexican oil boom town in the mid-1920s. After getting stiffed for working on an oil rig, they overhear a grizzled prospector, Howard (Walter Huston, the father of the director), discussing how he went about prospecting for gold. Suddenly, the men are gripped by “gold fever,” and they all agree to a partnership to go prospecting deep in the mountains. Once there, they do find gold, but that’s just the beginning of their problems.

As the gold piles up, paranoia starts to grip all three men to varying degrees. Another American named Cody (Bruce Bennett, a former Olympic shot put Silver Medalist who had played Tarzan) spots Curtin getting supplies in a nearby village and shows up back at the camp, refusing to leave until he gets a share. The trio votes to kill him, but then a bunch of local bandits posing as “Federales” show up to try and steal the gold. This is the scene with the famous line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” In the ensuing firefight, Cody is killed. Then nearby villagers call Howard away to help with a sick boy, leaving Dobbs and Curtin to cart the gold back to civilization on their own. Their differences come to a head and Dobbs shoots Curtin in his sleep. We see that Dobbs has fully descended into madness as Bogart laughs while flames gradually rise to cover the screen. For me, it’s one of the great shots of the movies. But the bandits catch up to Dobbs, kill him, and leave him a puddle, dumping out all the gold because they think it’s sand. Curtin, it turns out, survives and ends up meeting Howard back at town as they agreed, where they realize that the gold is gone and laugh together hysterically.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre feels much closer to a modern, more psychological adventure movie than most viewers are expecting. Sort of the 1940s version of The Revenant. The thing starts out through Bogart’s point of view, and he ends up face down in the mud after going crazy. In the original book, the bandits actually decapitate him, and John Huston actually shot that version because he was basically nuts. The studio rejected it out of hand, though Bogart stated that he “didn’t see what was wrong about showing a guy get his head chopped off.” This didn’t detract any from Bogart’s performance, especially given that it was such a rarity for a star of his era to play such an unsympathetic character. The really memorable performance from a modern viewer’s perspective, however, was Walter Huston’s, which won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. There’s a sort of crazy glee behind everything he does, even the bad things. His little dance when they first find gold is one of the best things in the movie. John Huston, for his part, directed both his father Walter and daughter Anjelica to Oscar-winning performances over the course of his long career.

I did a little digging on the novelist B. Traven, on whose work this movie is based. Many famous novelists through history have used pseudonyms, but for most of them we don’t know who they actually were. Most of B. Traven’s Wikipedia page is devoted to various theories of his actual identity, but we don’t actually know. Huston intended to purchase the rights to the novel directly from Traven, and arranged to meet him in person at a hotel in Mexico City. Instead, someone showed up at the meeting claiming to be named “Hal Croves” and showed Huston a supposed power of attorney from Traven allowing him to make all decisions on his behalf related to the movie. Croves sold Huston the rights, then spent much of the movie shoot sitting silently near the set wearing sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat. Huston told people later he just assumed the guy was Traven himself under an assumed name, but nobody actually knows.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is, in the end, a very good version of a very simple movie. Some guys find some gold, and it drives all of them nuts in different ways. It’s a story about paranoia and greed, disguised as an exciting adventure movie. Humphrey Bogart plays basically the best crazy guy I’ve seen in the movies. So check it out.

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