Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) dir. John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Alfonso Bedoya, Barton MacLane, Robert Blake and John Huston
By Greg Klymkiw
"The creative person should have no other biography than his works." - B. Traven
I have always believed that the best movies are made by filmmakers – more often than not – who infuse their work with a combination of life experience, style and craft. While good, if not great movies can be made with one or two of the above elements, the stuff that stays with you and, in fact, lives well beyond the mere ephemeral is endowed with all three.
It feels to me, then, that great lives and furthermore, great works of literature can make great movies.
John Huston, certainly more passionately and abundantly than most other American filmmakers, held onto this belief until his final breath. As an artist, John Huston always kept himself in the public eye. His life was bursting with the sort of adventure most of us only dream of. In addition to working as a screenwriter, playwright, actor and film/theatre director, Huston enjoyed a life that included light-middleweight boxing, journalism and, remarkably, as a soldier in the Mexican cavalry.
As a film director, Huston often insisted upon using the film’s production as an excuse to engage in exploits of the grandest variety. Peter Viertel, the un-credited scenarist of The African Queen wrote the terrific fact-based novel (later made by Clint Eastwood as the movie White Hunter Black Heart) where it detailed Huston’s insistence upon shooting on location in the Congo so he could participate in an elephant safari.
With an enlarged heart and kidney disease in his early life and suffering from an aneurysm in later years, Huston never let these ailments stop him. He even steadfastly fought a battle with emphysema to keep alive in his last weeks on Earth to render one of his greatest works, The Dead, based upon James Joyce's exquisite story from his book "Dubliners.”
Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s classic film from 1948 is based on the magnificent novel by the mysterious B. Traven. Without question, one the great movies of all time, it owes much to its source material.
Traven, unlike the very open Huston, lived his life in almost complete anonymity, writing primarily about the "working man", the downtrodden and, in general, the disenfranchised. His books, often of the two-fisted variety, are endowed with observations on human behaviour that are so brimming with the stuff of life, that it is, in spite of the aforementioned quotation, a bit of a shame that the author chose a life free of the public scrutiny that most other writers chose and/or endured.
Other than his work and a few pungent quotations, Traven did not leave a body of observations, ideas and thoughts beyond his work. He was, no doubt, an incredible human being who lived the sort of high adventure life that someone like Ernest Hemingway experienced. What little is known about Traven ultimately suggests that his work is, at the very least, semi-autobiographical.
Few credible sources can claim to have known Traven – not even his publishers had ever met him face-to-face. That said, it is highly conceivable that Huston and Traven, who engaged primarily through correspondence, did actually meet. Traven was scheduled to visit the set, but in his place, sent a mysterious figure with written authorization from Traven that this individual had power-of-attorney to represent Traven’s interests. He then proceeded to spend a good deal of time on location. It’s widely believed this man was, indeed, Traven himself. If he privately revealed himself to Huston, the great director never betrayed this confidence. Huston, given the sort of stories he loved to tell as a filmmaker believed in the fellowship of men, and in particular, honour above all.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the great motion pictures about greed and as such, honour plays a great role in the proceedings.
Set in a small Mexican town during the mid 1920s, we’re introduced to Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), an itinerant down-on-his-luck labourer who is living off handouts, and in particular, more than one spare piece of change from a wealthy fellow American (played by a dapper and un-credited John Huston himself). When Dobbs encounters an amiable oilman and fellow countryman Barton MacLane (Pat McCormick), he and Curtin (Tim Holt), another downtrodden American, are hired as labourers on an oil-drilling rig.
After the backbreaking work, MacLane disappears and the two men are still penniless. Spending the night in a flophouse, they make the acquaintance of Howard (John Huston’s father Walter in his great Oscar-winning performance), a crusty, old prospector who fills the men’s heads with talk of gold - how with a modest stake and considerable elbow grease, a fortune can be found. Howard also declares that few people - especially honest working stiffs - can ever hope to keep their fortune since gold fever, once it sets in deeply, can instil both greed and insanity in even the best of men.
Though the tale has been plenty compelling to this point, it’s here that things get really interesting. One of the amazing things about the film is how our central protagonist quickly becomes an anti-hero and by a certain point, Fred C Dobbs becomes one of the most miserable, petty and reprehensible leading characters in film history. It takes a star of the highest order; one who is as great an actor as Humphrey Bogart to pull this off. (A recent example of this is Daniel Day Lewis in P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.)
Dobbs insists he’d never fall prey to such greed. Having recently scored a local numbers-racket lottery (he's sold a ticket by a grubby little boy played by future wife-killer Robert Blake), he even offers to add stake money to a gold prospecting expedition without recompense. It is, however, a steely obsessive look in Bogey’s eyes that betray his proclamations of generosity and goodwill. Even at this early stage we’re convinced that the contradiction of these assertions seem likely.
This, of course, is what makes the picture a fine example of storytelling. We’re sure from the outset that our hero will fall prey to greed, yet we’re rooting for him NOT to. And even when the worst happens and our hopes become so much dust in the wind, we're still hanging on to whatever wisp of the character's humanity that clings to him - praying that Bogey's going to turn around, but knowing all the while it's never going to happen. When Dobbs crosses an unmentionable line of foul behaviour much later in the film, he can only go down further than Hell itself.
Bogart is so great in this picture. He infuses the role with such personality – the tough, downtrodden workingman who just wants to score a fair buck for his labours that we’re also pulling for him.
After the night in the flophouse, Dobbs spies his erstwhile boss Barton MacLane. He demands his pay and when it’s clear he won’t get it, he beats the unscrupulous exploiter to a pulp (the brutality of this is still shocking). That said, when he retrieves the wad of cash from the unconscious profiteer, he takes only the amount owed to himself and Curtin and when he offers the bar owner recompense for damages, he takes it out of his share of the dough.
The actions after he beats Barton don’t seem like the actions of someone who will turn gold crazy against his partners - men who become the closest thing he has to friends. Again though, it is a combination of storytelling brilliance and Bogart’s extraordinary performance that leads us to believe that all will not be right. Bogart infuses the beating with such cool, nasty precision that he’s clearly not a simple working stiff with a clearly defined moral code – he’s a mean, two-fisted bastard. When push comes to shove, he doesn't just shove back, he'll cold-cock his opponent across the face with a two-by-four.
Yes, life’s given Dobbs more than his fair share of hard knocks, but he’s not going to accept fair shares of anything.
From here on in, working from his screenplay adaptation of Traven’s novel, Huston ups the ante. The following ensues with all the power and excitement one wants from such a tale;
- A thrilling gun battle from the train between our three prospectors and a group of bloodthirsty Mexican bandits (led by the grinning psychotically amiable Gold Hat and brilliantly played by Alfonso Bedaya),
- An arduous journey,
- The painstaking building of a mine,
- The retrieval of a fortune in gold dust,
- The growing paranoia and mistrust amongst the partners (especially the increasingly crazed Dobbs),
- The appearance of an interloper wanting a cut of the mine,
- The contemplation of cold-blooded murder (not once, but twice).
- Another thrilling gun battle with Gold Hat and his bandits,
- More paranoia,
- More violence,
- And last, but not least one of the greatest surprise endings in movie history and, for good measure – peace, hope and redemption - though not for one and all.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre simply cannot be beat as pure motion entertainment with heart, soul and a cornucopia of food for thought. Few American films deserve to share breathing space with it.
The picture is so great, I'm compelled to wonder: Where are our John Hustons, B. Travens and Humphrey Bogarts? Will we again see a time when our film artists will live great lives, write great stories and mount them for all eternity on the silver screen? Sure, there are a few out there still living, but they’re getting old. Who will take their places? Who will dazzle us with movies that will live for all time - movies that are the stuff of their own great lives?
"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment. It’s jam packed with a whole mess of terrific extras. Oddly, while I cannot fault the pristine transfer to HD, I was occasionally disconcerted by a look that seemed untrue to the spirit of the picture. I find this happening more and with Blu-Ray and old classics. The transfers are great, but the fact remains that film negative was never designed for such close scrutiny and transfer – it was meant to stay as celluloid, be projected through light and thrown onto a huge screen. On occasion, a transfer manages (often by mistake and/or laziness and/or cheapness) to be more "cinematic". It’s not often enough, frankly, but if Blu-Ray transfers of classics in any form gets new generations thrilling to the material, I suppose that’s enough and the rest of us aging movie geeks can just shut up.