The Treasure of the Sierra Madre follows the story of three down and out Americans in 1920s Mexico who pool their last pesos to prospect for gold in the wilderness. It’s a black and white Hollywood classic starring Humphrey Bogart, so my expectations were high. I haven’t yet decided if it delivered. The film is written and directed by John Huston and is an adaptation of the 1927 novel of the same name by B. Traven. I won’t go into the plot much as I have an aversion to spoilers, but rest assured, the three Americans don’t have an easy time.
Not that we’re particularly led to believe they will. Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and friend Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) meet the aged, toothless Howard (Walter Huston, the director’s father) in a dime-a-night dorm as the seasoned prospector is lecturing on the value of gold: “An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labour that went into the findin' and the gettin' of it.” This is a subtle nod to the Marxist messages the novel holds; subtle because in 1940s America, you couldn’t shout “Red!” too comfortably. Within the film’s structure though, it gives the audience an indication the struggle coming up. Howard assures the men, and us, that it’ll be hard going, not only physically but mentally too.
Essentially, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre portrays the greed of desperate men. Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin how gold can change a man’s soul, but they pay him little heed. Soon their main priority is protecting their ‘stuff’ as they divide it every night and hide it from each other. Predators, bandits and the Federales all roam the mountainside posing a very real threat to the men’s schemes, and indeed their lives. But, the greatest danger they face is from within, poetically. Murder soon becomes a reasonable measure to protect their interests, whilst sobering reminders of the civilised world recontexualise the men’s incapacitating greed. Whether we like the men or not doesn’t really come into it; it’s all a question of what people are capable of in certain situations.
Instead, whether I liked the film itself is the question most on my mind. Sure, it had a good script and the score was pretty powerful too, but is that enough? It’s probably because I set my expectations too high that I was fairly underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong – it is a good film, technically speaking. Bogart gives an incredible performance of a man mentally falling apart at the seams, while Huston Snr. created the mad prospector’s dance from which all others are derived. Huston Jnr. delivers the film’s message with clarity, but perhaps not with an above average dexterity. I think my problem is mainly that I found myself not particularly minding what happened. The Treasure of Sierra Madre is an experiment in a Petri dish, and I felt far too distant behind the protective screen.