It must be the greatest laughing fit in cinematic history: 90 seconds of hysteria that capture man’s experience in all its complex joy and futility. Surrounded by a swirl of Mexican dirt, two weather-worn, work-wearied gold diggers bellow to the wind. After ‘ten months of suffering and labour’, the men, Howard (Walter Huston) and Curtin (Tim Holt), are left with nothing: ‘The gold’s gone back to where we found it’, cries Howard. Their hard-won wealth amounts to little more than handfuls of dust, carried away by the howls of a gale. The laughing duo used to be three: an uneasy allegiance of dirt-poor prospectors on the hunt for gold. They dug together, ate together, slept side by side and carefully divided up the granules of gold each evening. The plan was to ‘make each guy responsible for his own goods’, but it was the loose cannon of the group, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), who finally squandered the riches. The three men were headed back to Tampico to deposit their gold at a bank when they were stopped by a group of native Indians asking for help. Old-timer Howard answered their pleas and, through rudimentary medicine and luck, saved a child’s life. Eager to show their appreciation, the boy’s family urged Howard to stay on as an honoured guest so that they could re-pay their debt of gratitude. Howard relented, hoping to catch up with the young men in the city, but it was not to be: without Howard’s wise and sobering influence, Dobbs loses his head (both metaphorically and literally). Overcome with greed, he shoots Curtin and leaves him for dead. As a solitary figure with an unruly train of pack mules, Dobbs is unable to defend himself against a trio of bandits, who hack off his head and make off with his bags of gold. They mistake the precious metal for worthless rocks and empty the sacks to the wind. Howard and a wounded Curtin re-unite and hurry to the site where the bandits dumped their loot. And now they sit, among a swirling storm of gold-dust, as broke as when they started out. Their hearty guffaws ring out with gallows humour. On and on and on they go.
On the face of it, John Huston’s masterstroke of powerful, pithy cinema, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), acts as a straightforward fable or morality tale. Three men go in search of gold and lose it all to greed and paranoia. The descent of Dobbs certainly follows the standard tragic trajectory. He displays hubris, ignoring Howard’s warnings. The men meet in a grimy guesthouse, where Howard offers plenty of words of caution: ‘I know what gold does to men’s souls’; ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’; ‘When the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts’. Dobbs believes that he can beat these portentous phrases: ‘It wouldn’t be that way with me, I swear it – I’d take only what I set out to get, even if there was half a million dollars’ worth sitting around waiting to be picked up’. For Dobbs, the effect of gold ‘can be as much a blessing as a curse’: ‘it all depends on whether the man who finds it is the right guy’. Over the course of the film, such hubris gives way to increasing materialism and selfishness, resulting in his final act of callous treachery. In a violent tale of black-and-white morality, it is only fitting that he meets his end at the blade of a machete.
But dig beneath the topsoil of the men’s search for gold and you’ll see more than just one doomed expedition. The film is full of them. Before hunting for gold, Dobbs and Curtin undertake conventional employment as construction workers. In the searing heat, they work to build an oil rig but the contractor disappears without paying them. It is only by chance that the two men stumble upon their former boss and manage to extract their wages by force: a punch-up in a bar, full of ‘rats, scorpions and cockroaches’. Dobbs has no better luck, gambling on the lottery. We first meet the down-and-outer tearing up a ticket, in front of a notice board of winning numbers, and later, when he does win a few hundred pesos, he sinks the money into tools and provisions for the doomed gold-hunting trip. The bandits who ambush Dobbs have even less luck than Howard and Curtin. They throw away their chance at wealth because they assume Dobbs is a fur trader. The bandits believe Dobbs was using the rocks to bulk up animal hides and deceive potential buyers. They dash the bags aside and then, rounded up by the Federales (the Mexican police), they are forced to dig their own graves.
Each attempt to accumulate wealth – honest labour, prospecting, gambling and stealing – reaches a dead-end: ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’. No success lasts and no failure deters another attempt at success. The doomed expeditions act as micro analogies for the macro busts and booms of the capitalist system. In the novel on which the film is based, published in 1927, there are even more examples of botched attempts to acquire and retain fortunes. Through B. Traven’s magnificent prose (his description of bandits ambushing a train is heart-quickeningly good), Howard spins fantastical yarns about forgotten mines and Spanish settlers. Every page provides acutely written insights into the bizarre, torturous logic of modern capitalism, secreted within gloriously told stories. And in the film, Huston creates an equally taut narrative, condensing Traven’s perceptive words with visual punches of gun fights and bar brawls. The doomed expeditions of the book and film reveal the fragility and sometimes nonsensical nature of economic systems and how they are created by and impact on human nature. In that sense, it’s a work that is apposite for our times and has traversed decades. Men losing their wealth in a cloud of dirt would have been a familiar vision to audiences on the release of the film in 1948, memories of the Dust Bowl not too distant in their minds, and Traven’s novel itself was published two years before the Wall Street Crash. With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides a welcome and very different context to the wealth of the Roaring Twenties, showing the practical reality of wealth accumulation behind the opulent display.
Dobbs’ descent into feverish individualism is beautifully rendered by Huston’s direction and Bogart’s performance. Sitting around the camp fire, the three prospectors discuss what they will do with their money once they get back to Tampico: Howard says he wants to get himself a little grocery or hardware store, providing himself with a stable income and time for ‘readin’ comic strips and adventure stories’; Curtin states that he hopes to buy a peach farm and watch his ‘own trees bare fruit’; but Dobbs’ aims are far less noble:‘Well, first off, I’m goin’ 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 goin’ to a haberdasher and I’m gonna get myself a brand new set of duds…a dozen of everything. Then, I’m goin’ 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 waiter out and make him take the whole thing back’.
He seamlessly takes up the mantle of a societal oppressor, losing empathy for those lower down the pecking order. Later, when a fellow American prospector named Cody (Bruce Bennett) arrives unexpectedly at the men’s camp, Dobbs uses the language of a heartless employer: ‘We got not use for you… No vacancies’. Despite his own experience of jobless desperation, he is all too eager to laud his new-found power and humiliate a man in a weaker position. He starts to see himself in financial terms, arguing that he should receive a larger share of gold as he put up more money for the expedition than Curtin: ‘In any civilised place, the biggest investor gets the biggest return, don’t he?’. He becomes increasingly aware of his own position and status, frequently referring to himself in the third person (‘Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean’). After he finally shoots Curtin, Bogart’s performance comes into its own as he carries the film with an intense, paranoid monologue.
In his novel, Traven does not present a simple solution to the ills of capitalism, but there are glimpses of alternative realities, which receive slightly more emphasis in Huston’s film. Curtin’s dreams of a peach farm provide a vision of a harmonious society: ‘I figure on buying some land and growing fruit – peaches maybe…One summer when I was a kid, I worked as a picker in a peach harvest in the San Joaquin Valley. Boy, it sure was something. Hundreds of people, old and young, whole families workin’ together. At night, after a day’s work, we used to build big bonfires and sit around and sing to guitar music, till morning sometimes. You’d go to sleep and wake up and sing, and go to sleep again. Everybody had a wonderful time. Ever since then, I’ve had a hankering to be a fruit grower. Must be grand watching your own trees put on leaves, come into blossom and bear…watching the fruit get big and ripe on the boughs, ready for pickin’…’
And in the film, unlike the novel, we see Curtin making concrete plans for such an existence. The movie script kills off the fourth American, Cody (in the book, he is a strange, haunted prospector, who continues to search for gold after the other men return to Tampico) and invents a letter from his widow, which speaks of a life based on harvesting the land rather than chasing riches: ‘The country is especially lovely this year… The upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm. Everybody looks forward to big crops. I do hope you are back for the harvest. Of course, I’m hoping that you will at last strike it rich. It is high time for luck to start smiling upon you, but just in case she doesn’t, remember we’ve already found life’s real treasure.’
At the end of the film, Curtin decides to sell the last of the animal hides and buy a ticket to Dallas to visit Cody’s widow. There is an emphasis on respecting land and its resources elsewhere in the film too, when Howard urges the younger men to help him clean up the camp before they leave for Tampico: ‘We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds’. And Howard’s life as a medicine man in the Native Indian village also acts as an alternative to chasing gold, providing relief from prospecting adventures (‘I’m all fixed for the rest of my natural life’).
Despite highlighting these alternatives, the movie stops short of becoming a preachy prescriptive take on how life should be. We are not asked to hate Dobbs (‘I reckon we can’t blame him too much’, muses Howard) but rather understand what created his and others’ failure. Like Traven’s novel, the film primarily provides a description of the absurdity of aspects of capitalism. It describes the doomed expeditions that make up the whole. After all, as the wise old-timer explains, ‘Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewellery with and gold teeth.’