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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - 1948

Directed by John Huston

Written by John Huston
Based on the novel by B. Traven

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt & Bruce Bennett

A lot of life, I've found, is a matter of balance. Go around and trust everyone, and everything you hear people say, then you'll end up being conned, stolen from and misinformed - just as Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are, getting fooled into doing work for Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane) during the first section of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They go without getting paid - trusting in his manner that he was a principled man. Conversely, trust nobody and believe nothing people say and you'll end up with paranoia, conflict and be a nervous wreck your whole life - just as Fred C. Dobbs does when gold fever starts to eat it's way into his mind, and he starts to suspect that his workmates, Bob and Howard (Walter Huston), are going to cheat him in some way after the three have gathered enough placer gold to be worth a small fortune to them. Neither extreme is good, and Sierra Madre explores that variable in human nature that can affect our ability to trust, cooperate and deal with each other as respectable human beings. It's a harsh dog eat dog world, but there has to be a limit to that somewhere along the line, lest we live as ravenous, violent animals.

I had a dream once that I was at the beach, wading out into the shallows, and kept on finding big gold bars just beneath the waves. I still remember it because of how excited I'd got in the dream, and how that excitement was with me the moment I woke up - before I realised I'd been dreaming, and had to come crashing down to earth. There's nothing that represents wealth more than gold does - finding the valuable metal is synonymous with the lotteries we see at the start of this film. For people, it leads to a kind of delirium. When gold was found in Coloma, California in 1848, the papers reported that it “set the public mind almost on the highway to insanity.” In Sierra Madre we see the hard work and resilience needed to go where it is, and deal with the landscape along with other people - of being prepared, having someone experienced with you, and having the right equipment. We see the dangers, the toil, and the rewards of doing what our three main characters do - and we also see that 'highway to insanity' in the case of one of them.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the first Hollywood films to have gone off on location in another country for the sake of authenticity - in this case Durango and Tampico, Mexico. It aids the film, and for some reason I kept thinking of Wages of Fear, which has a similar look to this, and follows many of the same themes - over and over again I'd think back to that French/Italian classic that came along 5 years after this. I was also really surprised by how battered, beaten and ugly Humphrey Bogart allowed himself to look in this movie. At some stages, with beard and furrowed brow, he reminded me of a rat - his toothy grimace and filthy face expressing the poisonous paranoia he was experiencing. It was Walter Huston who won a Best Actor Oscar though, for his performance as the much wiser Howard - swooping in like an angel to save a native kid, and becoming rather philosophical about the whole adventure and where it takes him. Although the film itself would miss out on a Best Picture win despite being nominated, it won for Best Director (John Huston) and Best Screenplay (John Huston) - which are wins people usually say indicate that it should have won Best Picture (that went to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.)

Anyway, I'm happy to have finally (finally) seen this classic - it was one of the last true classics I hadn't seen yet (I'm probably exaggerating, there must be plenty more) and removes the great big void which would stare at me whenever the film came up in discussions or in what I was reading. I thought it would be more of an adventure - but it turned out to be something of a Western. Instead of action, I was really happy to see that this wanted to say something about being human, and examine certain personality traits. It explored how relationships can change as circumstances change, and how people can turn against each other when stakes are raised. It looked at what trusting too much and what not trusting at all leads to. We get plenty of action with Mexican bandits, including the famous line "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!" - which (despite never having seen the film) I'd often use, always making the mistake of saying "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" - which is not what's said in the film if you want to be exact.

I'd also like to add, in the film's favour, the fact that it surprised me so often - especially in how everything ended up, which I won't go into in detail. Bogart dominates most of it, really willing to be, if not the bad guy (they were the bandit Mexicans - and I'm glad they were offset by the Federales), the guy who stoops to begging, violence and general disrespect. You see people like him still today - paranoid, needy, easily triggered into violent reactions, loud, cunning and just generally full of their "Oh, I know what's going on here!" pronouncements of mistaken finger-pointing. Fred Dobbs must have had that hidden deep within him right from the beginning, with the gold fever bringing it out - and it was adventurous for Bogart to play such a role. It's that character my mind goes to whenever I think about the film now. He was mentally ill by the end, and I have to admit that this kind of madness fascinates me. Is it something the wealthy suffer from in general? A 'get away from my fortune' kind of instinct? Such are the questions posed when looking at this side of humanity, and that's what I enjoyed most about this film. How it examined us.