Reflections on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

Directed and written by John Huston

(based on the book by B. Traven)

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” opens in oil-rich Tampico in Mexico in the 1920s, a place and time which attracted many due to the lure of readily available natural resources and the presence of enterprising businessmen all too willing to seek their fortunes by plundering these resources.

Unfortunately for Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin, by the time of their arrival the major oil field had all but dried up and we witness Dobbs forced to beg in the streets in order to survive.

Dobbs (and by extension, Curtin) are reduced to the level of beggars and have thus, apparently, reached the bottom of the barrel. They may be viewed as desperate, worthless and unworthy of respect. But they have not resorted to criminality. They may lack money and social standing but they retain a modicum of self-respect as they remain honest and seek work in order to get by. Indeed, within the fraternity of the impoverished there is evidence of human compassion, understanding and sympathy despite, or perhaps exactly because of, their shared hard times.

Dobbs is approached to buy a lottery ticket by a young Mexican lad. He is initially unpleasant to him and gruffly rejects the boy’s sales pitch. However, the boy accepts Dobbs’ rough treatment of him and persists in his attempt to make even a small sale, indicating his desperation. After reflection, Dobbs buys a lowly part-share in the lottery ticket almost as a way of helping the boy survive, suggesting Dobbs’ fundamental humanity despite his situation, frustration and anger.

Dobbs and Curtin consider themselves the dregs of society and are grateful to receive offers of work from Pat McCormick. However, Mr McCormick represents a section of society which is without scruples and is willing to take advantage of Dobbs and Curtin’s situation, desperation and willingness to work. He scams them (along with several others) of their pay, showing no remorse or compassion and is willing to advance self-interest at the expense of others. Dobbs and Curtin may have hit an all-time low, but they would not sink to these depths.

Eventually, they catch up with McCormick and demand what is theirs. There is a vicious fight and when Dobbs and Curtin emerge the victors, they take their spoils. However, they take only what was due to them. Anything more would have been theft and that is clearly against their honest natures.

Next, they meet Howard who offers an alternative to financial struggle and dependence on others for survival. He is a gold-digger and he presents a less traditional and less society-dependent way of getting by – seeking gold. He embodies spirit, hope and determination while readily recognising the awful consequences on men of seeking and finding gold – a lack of trust in others and increased selfishness – though he appears willing to live with these consequences if it means he can access wealth by way of gold.

And so, they form a team and set off in search of their fortunes. They travel a considerable distance across Mexico and leave behind “civilisation”, society and the social structures they impose. Large social groups involve complex frameworks which allow their members to co-exist, support one another and eventually become interdependent. They come to rely on one another to provide services but also a source of income, a means of getting by and even fraternity. This dependence on one another requires trust and reliability – they need one another to survive, especially financially. The gaining of excessive wealth removes the fundamental need for such structure and dependence on others, and may lead to distrust and suspicion as the wealthy become protective, self-centred and unwilling to share.

Thanks to Howard’s experience and hard-won knowledge they find their gold and gradually Howard’s warnings of loss of trust and selfishness come true. Dobbs is particularly distrustful, perhaps because he felt shame at his circumstances in Tampico and has no desire to return to that social position and so becomes highly protective of his finds, and he makes accusations which do little to build or retain any sense of fraternity and confidence between the men.

Thus, Dobbs, Curtin and to a lesser extent Howard (who knew to expect this consequence of finding wealth) have a taste of independence, yet they realise they remain reliant on one another’s honesty. Alone and in the wilderness far from social niceties of morality and laws, trust evaporates and they start to lose sight of one another’s principles and are increasingly aware of criminal possibilities.

Curiously, they remain fundamentally honest at this point as they merely express distrust in one another and wish to protect their own gains. They do not seek to take what isn’t theirs – it is not a question of personal greed but rather suspicion of greed and dishonesty on the part of the others.

This situation should be compared to earlier scenes in which, jobless and taken advantage of, Dobbs is willing to share his good fortune (when he wins a small share of the lottery) to stake Curtin in their gold-seeking venture. They share what little they have after receiving no pay and they are happy and willing to help one another when all are needy and require assistance. Their common needs help them to form a social pact in which each supports the other to the benefit of all concerned.

The arrival of a stranger, Cody, who wishes to throw in with them (on a basis of honesty and fair shares) tips the already teetering balance of morality in favour of self-preservation. Our three seekers of wealth hold a reasoned discussion regarding Cody and they decide they should murder him in order to protect and advance their own interests, pure and simple. They consider this action acceptable if all three share the guilt. This marks a notable deterioration in the view of morality of all three – not only are they willing to take a life merely to advance their own interests, they recognise they will feel guilt (and thus that they are doing wrong) but they are ready to live with it if it means they can have their gold.

They make their way to Cody in order to take his life but encounter a common enemy on the way – bandits who are also willing to do anything to advance their own interests, including taking the lives of our band of gold-seekers. Cody defends himself and his would-be murderers against the bandits but pays with his life.

Having survived the bandit attack and recognising Cody’s contribution, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard discover a letter to Cody from his beloved wife. While previously they regarded Cody simply as a threat to the accomplishment of their mission, the reading of this letter brings home to them that Cody had a past, relationships, responsibilities and a future – he did not belong solely to their present. We are all multi-facetted individuals whose paths cross and exercise influence on others and it is often too easy to see individuals only in terms of their immediate effect on us.

Upon reflection, and having gained a wider perspective on friend Cody and his life, and taken in to account the fact he helped them survive the bandit attack, they decide to share a portion of their good fortune with his family in Texas.

We see that they remain open to empathy and compassion as they are reminded of social structures and warm relationships, but continued isolation, obsession and desperation lead to a lack of consideration and respect for others. Thus, en route toward “civilisation”, Dobbs shows himself willing to kill Curtin as his suspicions and paranoia get the better of him. He has been so focused on gold for so long that he has lost perspective and is now losing the one thing he retained despite everything – his honesty. Even when reduced to the status of a beggar in the streets he held on to his honesty. Now, technically wealthy, he loses his grip on self-respect and morality as he shoots Curtin and takes all the gold. He believes he has killed him but is plagued by guilt and uncertainty, especially when Curtin’s body disappears.

Virtually within sight of a town and the means to cash in on his efforts, Dobbs encounters some of the murderous bandits he has met on at least two previous occasions. In the end, Dobbs is murdered for next to nothing while his fortune in gold dust is not even recognised for what it is (the bandit assumes it is sand and empties the bags containing it on the ground). The few goods for which he is murdered have more immediate value to his murderer than the fortune Dobbs has spent an age uncovering. All that matters to his bandit killer is that Dobbs had something he wanted or needed. The value was of no consequence. Perhaps Dobbs was travelling down the same path toward similar values – he had crossed the line and having lost his grip on morality and his self-respect, he might have been tempted to kill (as he thought) again.

On the way to the mountains our group encountered fierce winds and there were warnings that nature will not be defeated. As they approach the town, winds are once again raised into a violent storm and they whip up sand, soil and gold dust which they carry off, returning it to its rightful resting place. Nature has indeed triumphed over man’s petty efforts to gain from it.

When faced with this devastating loss, Howard and Curtin (who survived Dobbs’ attack) recognise the irony of the situation and concede defeat. They laugh uncontrollably at the ease with which nature has reclaimed that which took several months of hard labour to wrest from the Earth.

They ponder their futures and are not tempted to further pursue apparently easy-gotten wealth. On the way from the mountain, Howard saved the life of a native child through applying what was, for him, basic medical knowledge, but the villagers are willing to adopt him as a sort of medicine man and Howard decides to take them up on their offer.

Meanwhile, Curtin proposes to head to Texas to look up Cody’s wife. Perhaps he hopes to pick up the life Cody left behind.

It is interesting to note that both survivors of this venture opt for futures in society, surrounded by people and in the warmth of relationships rather than pursue gold which, they have seen, can lead to the destruction of relationships, the breakdown of society and unleash an unattractive and amoral independent streak in men.

The script and direction by John Huston are completely assured, engaging and clear. The general atmosphere of social desperation and the gradual descent into suspicion, paranoia and amorality are superbly done and are presented as a natural progression (or deterioration) at a steady pace.

I have to say that for me a couple of the plot developments seemed a little unnatural. The letter from Cody’s wife seemed to trigger too easy a transition to compassion, and Howard’s saving of the native boy and his quasi-mystical induction into the tribe seemed contrived, but both these elements served the purpose of opening up the story and offered social alternatives to the self-centred and obsessive pursuit of wealth.

All the actors acquitted themselves remarkably well, though special mention must be made of Walter Huston’s Academy Award-winning performance. His shrewd but likeable Howard encapsulates the strength, character and spirit of those willing to chance everything but able to pick themselves up if or when they fail.

Humphrey Bogart is simply outstanding as Fred Dobbs. He captures brilliantly Dobbs’ deterioration from the honest, ambitious but failing down-and-out to the suspicious, lost and demented wealthy man who loses everything, including perspective, before he loses his very life.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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