THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
The actors are great, which is a surprise because Bruce Bennett and Tim Holt had modest careers. Bruce Bennett went to Hollywood to earn money after being an Olympic athlete. Because of his physicality and good looks, he was cast as a muscular Tarzan in a string of B movies. Tim Holt was nowhere near as physical but he did something similar in cheap Westerns. In The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre the two B-movie men are pitched against top grade Hollywood talent. Tim Holt is ordinary but convincing as a naïve young man. Bennett sought advice on his characterisation from director John Huston. Bennett was told that the character he played was more intelligent than the three prospectors. It worked. Bennett was believable as a man who told it straight and who was prepared to think it through. He was effective in a similar role in Mildred Pierce.
Holt and Bennett coped and survived in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, which is just as well because Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston deliver unforgettable performances, possibly the best they ever did in Hollywood. Barton McClain is also great as the slimy businessman who objects on principle to paying wages to his employees. Alfonso Bedoya plays the Mexican bandit, Gold Hat. He became famous for how he spat out the line, ‘I don’t have to show you any stinking badges’. But every time Bedoya appears in the frame he is a reminder of how The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre inspired the great Sam Peckinpah. Part of the fun of watching The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is spotting the moments that Peckinpah borrowed for his Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch. These moments include the final conversation against a broken wall, the fight over the shoes of a dead man, the arrival of sinister but innocent Mexican villagers, the adoration of the American guests by the spiritual villagers, and Walter Huston stamping his feet as he, in rapid fire dialogue, expresses maniacal contempt for his colleagues.
Although acclaimed by critics The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre was not a box office hit. There are no heroes in the film and no happy ending unless you happen to be a German left wing anarchist who by 1927 had had enough of modern capitalism. B Traven was the name used by the author of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The identity of Traven is a mystery but we know he was German. What may or may not have happened to Traven has inspired a couple of books. John Huston may have been a talented director but he relished his celebrity and he often behaved like a scoundrel. For some years his daughter Angelica and the irresponsible and self-serving Jack Nicholson lived together. For a while Nicholson was useful as a father substitute. Traven was different. He walked away from fame and fortune and disappeared somewhere in Mexico. The rumour is that Traven ran a bar that was successful at deterring customers. His legend may have inspired Sam Peckinpah when he made Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. In that film an expatriate American hero owns a run-down bar in Mexico. The name of the hero was Benny. The Christian name of B Traven is unknown. People speculated, and Peckinpah let them.
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is not without flaws. The plot is not coincidence laden but it feels a little neat. The arrival of James Cody at the camp of the three prospectors adds a lively scene to the narrative but it is no more than an addition and, if anything, it diminishes what distinguishes the characters of the three prospectors. The mental decline of Fred C Dobbs is too rapid to be believable. The deterioration, though, is not relentless. There are moments when Dobbs becomes sympathetic to his fellow prospectors and forgets his compulsion to triumph and have all the gold. These interruptions in the unravelling of Dobbs add some credibility to the events.
Traven claimed that his novel was inspired by a German ballad. If this was the case, Rudyard Kipling must have had a knack for remembering German folk songs. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre both evokes and mimics Kipling. It is neither subtle nor original. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre just happens to be a fabulous movie. Huston was a fan of Kipling and the adventure stories of Victorian imperialists. B Traven provides the thrills of predecessors like Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle but, because of his sympathies for anarchism, he avoids racist right wing baggage. When the old prospector Howard visits the Mexican village to care for a sick child, he is welcomed with spiritual warmth that is absent from his own Western society. The gold is blown away by the wind. It will return to the mountain from where it came. Howard the old prospector recognises this as a joke played by God. Howard and Curtin sit down against a wall, think about what happened to Dobbs because of his desire for gold and settle for mere survival. Nobody says so but the two men have found valid purpose, the treasure that too many of us ignore. The scene and film may have religious significance. Dobbs, Curtin and Howard meet in a town called Tampico. The Spanish word for neither is tampoco. The Treasure Of Sierra Madre is an adventure that perhaps begins in Purgatory.
The characterisation in the movie is solid. Howard is an independent and self-reliant eccentric, Curtin is the loyal companion and Fred C Dobbs is competitive and ambitious. Dobbs dominates the movie. The opening scenes are devoted to Dobbs begging in the streets of Tampico. It helps us understand his need for wealth. Dobbs wants vengeance against a world that has inflicted him with indignities. The prospect of fortune allows Dobbs to imagine what it will be like to assert his status over others. The anger that was previously suppressed surfaces and twists his character. Ambition, though, makes him vulnerable to fate, and he becomes paranoid. Dreams shaped by wealth not available to others have to be protected and require aggression and suspicion. It makes sense that the three prospectors are separated by age. Howard is old and has no need to worry about the behaviour of others. He can rely on an identity shaped by experience and memory. As the youngest of the three men, Curtin has not yet suffered the indignities of the middle-aged and weary Dobbs. The other characters are incidental but have memorable detail. Gold Hat is a little slow, friendly but ruthless. Pat McCormick is the unprincipled businessman that prospers because he is shameless and values money more than people. He wears two hats. One is a Stetson, and the other a straw hat. It is clear that they help McCormick lie and perform, provide him with alternative identities. And James Cody is rational and honest but also mysterious. Howard and Curtin find a purpose they do not understand, and Cody leaves a legacy that will soon be shaped by another man, a stranger.
American fans of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre are keen to admire the characterisation and make great claims about what it says about human nature. B Traven was, though, a left-wing anarchist. The movie follows the plot of the book and makes the same political points. Greed, hierarchy, selfishness, inequality, and the exaggerated role wealth has in human affairs, are what create not just the tragedy of Fred C Dobbs but also the confusion that leads to the gold returning to the mountain where it belongs. What has happened to the gold has to be explained by an innocent child. Audiences may have yearned for a recognisable happy ending but there is final contentment. Howard will have a privileged existence as the medicine man in the Mexican village but he will also work to support the lives of the peasants. Curtin feels a responsibility to the widow of James Cody. Both men understand the attraction of space and landscape and, because neither will no longer be diverted by the need for gold and wealth, they will spend the rest of their lives close to the land and appreciating serenity. This message is not unique to Traven but what made him unusual as a writer and man was his willingness to test his beliefs. There are various theories but the real identity of Traven remains unknown. Somewhere in Mexico, though, the legacy of a secretive man who settled for a quiet life amongst human beings he regarded as his equals will be remembered. Or so I like to think. If not, we can always watch The Treasure Of Sierra Madre, a film that has a sympathetic character called Howard. This alone makes it an event.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.