By Carter B. Horsley
"The Treasure of The Sierra
Madre" is a depressing tale of desperate men in a desolate
environment: survival ain't easy and not always nice.
The 1948 film was based on
a 1936 book by B. Traven, one of the great mysterious men of 20th
Century letters whose real name supposedly was Berwick Traven
It was directed by John Huston
and starred his father, Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Tim
John Huston had directed Bogart
before in "The Maltese Falcon" and "Across the
Pacific" and "Key Largo" and would direct him again
later in "Beat The Devil" and "The African Queen."
They were a natural pair of crusty middle-aged men not quite over
the hill and crazy enough not to care. Bogart should have won
the Academy Award for his gutsy performance as a craven, cantankerous
coward and greedy madman, but probably lost because the movie
is "stolen" by Walter Huston whose brief jig in the
middle of the movie is one of the most joyous moments in the history
Walter Huston, as Howard, had
been a leading man in the movies and is well remembered for his
very popular rendition of "The September Song" and for
his brief appearance in "The Matlese Falcon" when he
delivers the "black bird" to Sam Spade's office and
then dies. In this film, he is the fount of knowledge, experience,
goodness and reason, while Bogart, as Fred C. Dobbs, is the incarnation
of paranoia, avarice, stupidity and evil.
John Huston wrote the screenplay
for which he won an Oscar. He also won the Oscar for best director
and Walter Huston won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The
Best Movie Oscar that year went to "Hamlet" with Laurence
As the movie begins, a scruffy
Dobbs is down and out in a small, dusty Mexican town. He asks
a well-dressed American for money and gets a coin with whim he
gets a meal, coffee and cigarettes and buys a lottery ticket from
a young boy just so he doesn't "have to look at" his
"ugly face." He then strikes up a conversation with
another out-of-work American, Curtin, played by Tim Holt. In his
fine and lengthy review of the film, Tim Dirks notes that Dobbs
laments that a white grino without work is doomed to lower-class
status," adding "it's some town to be broke in."
Dobbs see his recent "patron"
and successfully approaches him again for another coin with which
he gets a shave and a haircut and then longingly eyes, according
to Mr. Dirks, "a passing Mexican lady/prostitute? (an unlikely,
unbilled appearance by actress Ann Sheridan)."
Dobbs then begs for some money
from another man, Pat McCormick played by Barton MacLane, who
offers him a construction job with an oil-rigging concern. Dobbs
then discovers that his new acquaintance, Curtin, is also a member
of the work gang and they toil together at the job for about two
weeks. When they go to get their pay, however, McCormick gives
then only ten pesos as an advance and promises to meet them later
with their full pay.
McCormick does not appear and
Dobbs and Curtin then run into Howard extolling about gold to
a few men: "Never knew a prospector yet that died rich. Make
one fortune, you're sure to blow it in trying to find another.
I'm no exception to the rule. Aw sure. I'm an odd old bone now,
but say, don't you guys think the spirit's gone. I'm all set to
shoulder a pickax and a shovel anytime anybody's willing to share
expenses. I'd rather go by myself. Going it alone's the best way.
But you got to have a stomach for loneliness. Some guys go nutty
with it. On the other hand, going with a partner or two is dangerous.
Murder's always lurkin' about. Partners accusing each other of
all sorts of crimes. Aw, as long as there's no find, the noble
brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow,
that's when the trouble starts."
Later, Dobbs tells Curtin that
"gold don't carry any curse with it," adding that "gold
be as much of a blessing as a curse."
The next day, they run into
McCormick and demand their pay. He claims he hasn't been paid
for the contract yet and tries to entice them into working on
another job. They demand their money and McCormick strikes Curtin
with a bottle and almost gets away but finally succumbs to a beating
and Dobbs and Curtin find money in his wallet and take what they
are owed and fling the rest on the floor. They discuss going prospecting
for gold and Curtin muses that they "might have real use
for an experienced guy like that old-time" and Dobbs agrees,
urging that they "hunt him up right away."
They find Howard and he agrees
to join them but warns that "meat's one thing and bandits
another," adding that "bandit country is where we'll
be going. We ought to have six hundred bucks between us."
Dobbs and Curtin have $150 each and Howard has $200 and Dobbs's
hopes begin to fade but the boy who sold him a lottery ticket
then recognizes him and tells him his ticket won 200 pesos and
they set off on a train to "where there's no trails at all
- where you can be positive that no surveyor or anybody who knows
anything about prospectin' has ever been there before."
The train, however, is then
attacked by bandits, led by Gold Hat, played by Alfonso Bedoya).
Dobbs and Curtin and Howard shoot at the bandits who eventually
are driven off.
They get off the train at Durango
and pick up supplies and some burros and set off towards the distant
mountains. After a few days, Dobbs and Curtin are exhausted, bedraggled
and frustrated as well as amazed at Howard's stamina. Howard makes
fun of them and Dobbs tells him to shut up or he'll smash his
head. "Go ahead," Howard replies, adding that if he
did, "You'd never leave this wilderness alive; without me,
you two would die here more miserable than rats." Curtin
tells Dobbs to leave Howard along: "Can't you see the old
They move on and eventually
Howard tells them that they've found some gold and they build
a sluice and work hard at gathering up as much gold dust as they
In the mine one day, Dobbs
is trapped and hurt when the ceiling collapses and is pulled out
by Curtin. Dobbs tells him he owes him his life "partner"
and Curtin replies "forget it."
At night, they tell each other
their plans. Howard reckons he "settle down in some quiet
place" and "spend the better part of my time readin'
comic strips and adventure stories. Curtin says he plans to buy
some land and grow fruit. Dobbs states that "first off, I'm
going to a Turkish bath and I'm gonna sweat and soak till I get
all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I'm going to a haberdasher's
and I'm gonna get myself a brand new set of duds...a dozen of
everything. Then, I'm going to a swell cafe - order everything
on the bill of fare, and if it ain't just right, or maybe even
if it is, I'm gonna bawl the wait out and make him take the whole
Howard tells them they should
pull out when their shares are worth about $25,000 but Dobbs protests
that he is young: "I need dough and plenty of it."
Dobbs argues that he should
get a bigger share because he put in more and Curtin measures
out part of his gold and gives it to Dobbs who then flings it
into the fire proclaiming that he "just don't like being
called a hog!"
Dobbs's paranoia mounts: "You
can't catch me sleepin'"
Curtin goes into town to get
provisions and witnesses some Federal troops execute some bandits.
He is followed into the general story by a tall American stranger
named Cody, played by Bruce Bennett. Curtin tries to pretend he's
a hunter, but Bennett suspects he's seeking "pay dirt"
and proposes that he join him, but Curtin turns him down.
When Curtin returns to the
camp, he tells the others he thinks he has been followed and that
Cody will probably show up soon and, sure enough, Cody appears
only to be told by Dobbs that "We're full up, no vacancies."
Dobbs offer Cody beans but tells him to leave in the morning.
Cody, however, insists on staying, Howard is tempted to let him
join the group but Dobbs says he's not "a guy likes bein'
taken advantage of - do the mug in, I say." Curtin reluctantly
sides with Dobbs and as they approach him to kill him Cody warns
them that bandits are approaching.
The bandits are led by Gold
Hat and he tells Dobbs that "we are Federales" and Dobbs
asks "if you're the police, where are your badges? Gold Hat
replies: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no
badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"
A gun fight ensues and Cody
is killed but the bandits depart when they hear the arrival of
the Federales. Howard finds a letter in Cody's clothes from his
wife and reads it and Howard, Curtin and even Dobbs are moved
by it. They decided to leave but not before Howard encourages
them to "put the mountain back in shape": "we've
wounded this mountain and it's our duty to close her wounds."
Curtin decides that he will
give Cody's widow and son a "partner's fourth" and Howard
agrees, but Dobbs protests that "you two guys must've been
born in a revival meeting."
Some natives then approach
them and believe that grizzly old Howard is a medicine man and
ask him to return to their village to tend to a dying boy. Howard
agrees and asks Dobbs and Curtin to look after his goods and gold
until he returns. He revives the boy and rejoins his partners
but the natives return to invite them back to the village. Dobbs
declines but Howard agrees.
Dobbs and Curtin squabble and
Curtin objects to Dobbs's plan to take Howard's gold and go north
rather than back to Durango. Dobbs pulls his gun on Curtin but
Curtin disarms him and empties his gun of bullets and suggests
they part ways in the morning and Dobbs bets him he will fall
asleep before he does. Dobbs shoots Curtin and then wonders whether
he really killed him. Curtin is wounded badly but escapes and
is found by some Indians. Dobbs can't find Curtin's body the next
morning and thinks maybe a "tiger must have dragged him off
to his lair."
Curtin is brought to the village
where Howard is now highly honored and Curtin indicates he wants
Howard, however, says that
he reckons "we can't blame him too much." "He's
not a real killer as killers go. I think he's as honest as the
next fella - or almost. The big mistake was leaving you two fellas
out there in the depths of the wildnerness with more'n a hundred
thousand between ya. That's a might temptation, partner, believe
me. Maybe if I'd been young and been out there with either one
of you, I might have been tempted too."
Howard and Curtin ride off
in pursuit of Dobbs who has stopped at a waterhole only to be
confronted by Gold Hat and some of his gang. Gold Hat asks if
he is along and Dobbs says his friends are coming. Dobbs draws
his gun and tries to shoot Gold Hat but there are no bullets in
the gun and he is killed and stripped and the pack mules run off
and when they are caught the bandits tear open the sacks and let
the dust fall the ground. They do not realize it is gold dust
and take the mules to Durango to try to sell them only to be recognized
and caught by the Federales just as Howard and Curtin arrive.
They are told that the bandits mistook the gold for sand and left
it on the ground not far away. They rush to the place only to
realize that a wind storm has made recovery impossible.
"Oh laugh, Curtin, old
boy. It's a great joke played on us by the Lord, or rate, or nature,
whatever you prefer. But whoever or whatever played it certainly
had a sense of humor. Ha! The gold has gone back to where we found
it! This is worth ten months of suffering and labor!"
"The worst ain't so bad
when it finally happens," Curtin says and Howard asks Curtin
to take his left-over money and give it to Cody's widow as he
now plans to return to the Indian village and be worshipped.
While the film obviously is
a classic study in greed and paranoia as well as the impatience
and inexperience of youth and the wily wisdom of the elderly,
it is also a story about love and redemption and chance and the
fickleness of fate. Everything in the film is first rate: the
story and its plot twists, the direction, the cinematography and