This post contains mild spoilers for the plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Nothing too major, but be warned.
There are few things I love more than movies. Like a lot of people my age and younger, film was my first real exposure to fiction. Sitting down and watching Indiana Jones, Aladdin and The Lion King as a little boy are some of my earliest memories. But one huge advantage I had in growing up in a house with parents that were both movie buffs and conservative Christians is that I was exposed to old “Classic Hollywood” films at an early age. Westerns, detective movies, Disney’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (still a movie I enjoy to this day), were as familiar to me as Jurassic Park or anything that came out in the 90’s.
But one of my favorite movies since my dad brought it back from the library is John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie has a little bit of a Western feel, although it takes place in the wilderness of Mexico in 1925. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston (John’s father) star alongside Tim Holt (whose work I’m not familiar with, although a quick look at IMDb tells me I’ve seen him at least two other movies) on a quest for gold. The gold unsurprisingly changes the three men and their relationships with one another, and leads to some dire consequences for everyone involved.
Like I said, it’s a personal favorite, and I don’t know that there’s anything about it I would change. Bogart starts out as a lowly down-on-his-luck American begging a wealthy American (John Huston in a white suit) for some money and meets Curtain (Holt). They both get cheated out of some money, meet Howard (Walter Huston) who tells them about prospecting for gold, and with a sudden and unexpected bit of luck, Bogart wins the lottery and is able to fund the expedition to find gold in the Mexican wilderness.
But that’s just the introduction. What follows is the story of greed and the lust for gold. We see Bogart change from a man who would only dig for as much as he set out to get to one who convinces Howard to split up the gold three ways every night out of fear of one of his two friends stealing it. Bandits play a part, and we get to hear the famous, “We don’t need no stinking badges,” line. But what’s really striking is how impressive the whole story is. The plot doesn’t have the kind of structure you expect from a Hollywood film, especially one that came out in 1948. The “introduction,” as I’ve called it takes a significant portion of the film. And just when you think things are winding down, our heroes have to track down a character to regain their lost treasure, another character might be dead, and who knows what’ll happen to those poor stolen donkeys?
There’s a scene most of the way through the movie that takes place completely in Spanish, with no subtitles. I’m able to pick up a word here and there, but for the most part, I don’t know enough of the spoken language to keep up. But the emotions on the actors faces and the language of Huston’s camera clearly tell us what’s going on, and without feeling like we’re being
At the end, Howard tells us, “the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer,” gets the last laugh, so to speak. The bulk of the events in the film occur because of chance, and the lottery ticket, and the finding of the gold are really the result of chance. The final scene helps to show the audience this by showing just how crazy the world can be.
I think what really draws me to this movie is the way it handles its characters. The film doesn’t focus on the set pieces and it doesn’t have this, then this, then this, then this plot structure because Huston understands that the story really works because of what happens in the hearts of the characters. Everything that happens, happens because of their actions and because of their greed or distrust, but never at the whim of filmmakers.