On first encountering John Huston’s old prospector, Howard (Walter Huston), in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), our immediate impression is one of sheer delectation. Howard is wisdom personified. He is also a fine example of the Socratic dictum, “know thyself.”
Howard represents that rare form of contentment that is more readily found in literature than is often exercised by people in real life. He guides the viewer through a meticulous rendering of how avarice debilitates its victims — this, regardless of the latter’s treachery and craftiness. Howard reminds us of what Havelock Ellis has to say about morals in The Dance of Life: “There is no separating pain and pleasure without making the first meaningless for all vital ends and the second turn to ashes. To exalt the meaning of pain; and we cannot understand the meaning of pain unless we understand the place of pleasure in the art of life.” (1)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre employs themes that are much more complicated than we are first led to believe. The moralizing that takes place in the film is ruled by a spirited, categorical thought which demonstrates how intemperance breeds the seed of its own destruction. John Huston is not interested in depicting particular examples of avarice, but rather avarice itself. Avarice – a universal human character trait – is the major theme of the film. The great appeal of the film is that Huston allows Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) to destroy himself without having to resort to anything less than universally recognized values.
Along with avarice, Huston also explores envy, and perhaps most importantly, temperance, a character trait that is the central topic of discussion in Plato’s Charmides. (2) One of the reasons that the film has enjoyed such a great success is that these topics are not treated in isolation, as if existing in a vacuum.
For instance, temperance plays a direct role in the outcome of all the characters. We witness this not only in those who are intemperate, but also in the effects that this has in the lives of others. The vital interplay of the characters in the film, as they would interact in real life, is a refreshing cinematic perspective that ends in a cathartic resolution. Huston grounds the drama in a fine understanding of human reality. Real life situations serve as the foundation of the behaviour that we witness in the film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a two-dimensional, visual fable of human existence. Fables are an essential source of understanding because they confront us with fundamental truths. Also, fables remind us that all our actions and their consequences are the result of our perspective or the lack thereof. While the focus of the film might be Dobbs’ self-destruction, the essential motivation for his destruction nevertheless retains universal appeal and validity.
Of course, Dobbs’ potential salvation remains an open question. To this we must add that avarice cannot exist without the interaction of some key players, events, and circumstances. Hence the overriding effect of the film is to demonstrate the correlation that exists between wisdom and temperance. Again, the proximity between these two human traits makes us wonder if Dobbs can be saved under any circumstances. When confronted by wisdom, Fred C. Dobbs antagonizes Howard in the only manner that a fool can: he struggles against himself.
Perhaps the most effective way to make sense of the impact of this film is to view it as a fable. While it remains true that fables often make use of animals to demonstrate a lesson, this is only the case because the fable is designed to teach young people a valuable moral lesson. In the absence of personified animals, Huston instead utilizes men, a mountain, some bandits, and the passage of time. Huston, I believe, employs the very same staples of the fable, except that adults often make for very bad students when learning fundamental truths.
Allegory is a powerful teaching tool that removes us from the myopia that often comes about through the immediacy of the human condition. Man’s proximity to himself can be his greatest nemesis. The beauty of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is its ability to showcase how wisdom is often shunned for the rewards of instant pleasures or simply because it is often met by deaf ears. Howard is a teacher. Lessons are not made any truer because the teacher initiates them, but rather because the teacher acts as intermediary between the pupil and truth. Ideally, the best pupil is the one that seeks the teacher. Consider what Karl Jaspers writes about Socrates; this can easily be applied to Howard:
Socrates does not hand down wisdom but makes the other find it. The other thinks he knows, but Socrates makes him aware of his ignorance, so leading him to find authentic knowledge in himself. From miraculous depths this man raises up what he already knew, but without knowing that he knew it. This means that each man must find knowledge in himself; it is not a commodity that can be passed from hand to hand, but can only be awakened. (3)
Fables often make use of the supernatural. At the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the mountain reclaims the gold in a sudden burst of wind. Intemperance which is left to its own devices, the mountain seems to assert, is always corrected by its own unforeseen effects. Hence, Dobbs’ fate is sealed by his actions. What remains to be seen is just how his life will play out. Fate plays a central role in the film.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a colossal tragedy. There is at least one additional observer of human reality – beside the omniscient one that seems to hover over the tale – namely Howard, who is cognizant of Dobbs’ downfall. The story also has great bearing on the destiny that Howard assumes for himself. The viewer is invited to view a common human folly from a distance.
At the end of the film Howard is rewarded for his wisdom in several ways. He earns the respect of the village Indians for saving the young boy. Howard is offered a secure set of circumstances that he can enjoy for what he calls “the rest of my natural life.” He also earns Curtin’s (Tim Holt) respect and friendship. The tragedy is intensified in the manner that their lives and destinies become intertwined. Curtin does not appear to gain much from the adventure that he is thrust into. Actually, he almost dies when he is shot twice by a delusional Dobbs. His reward is a sober perspective on life. He admits that he is no worse off at the end of the journey than when he began.
In addition, the film ends on a note of hope that perhaps Curtin will find happiness, if not contentment, in delivering the closure that Cody’s (Bruce Bennett) widow will be searching for. Cody’s death also contributes to the story. His struggle to create a better life for his wife and small child results in disaster. Fate does not always supply happy endings.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a moral tale that is told from the perspective of a quasi-omniscient and detached observer of cosmic human follies who takes in the action prima facie. The impact of the story on the viewer’s imagination depends, as is the case with other artistic forms, on the viewer.
This is a story told from the perspective of time and the ironic constitution of the former, as this relates to human existence. What is so daunting about Dobbs’ fate does not seem important, that is, until we attempt to make sense of it. How does Dobbs’ story play out in actual human existence? Because cinema employs a closed-ended logic, that is, a resolution, the viewer is afforded a propaedeutic for future action.
Huston achieves a beautiful demonstration of the power of fate in a condensed format. The essential problem of wisdom, as is equally true of truth, is that human reality is often antagonistic to these. Instead, their validity and worth as guides for human life are always proven in time, or what is the passage of time. The same thing occurs when Spencer Tracy tries to impart a moral lesson to a young Robert Wagner in The Mountain (Edward Dmytryk, 1956), as the latter helps himself to the valuables of the victims of an airplane crash.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre begins with Fred C. Dobbs asking passers-by for some spare change. He is down and out in the small Mexican town of Tampico — an American ex-patriot looking for a friendly face and a break. This scene is compelling because in light of what is to follow, one wonders, at the end of the film, whether his indigent condition has made him avaricious or if he has always suffered from this character flaw.
Early on in the film Dobbs elicits the viewer’s sympathy, while later, only our pity. However, despite what we know of Dobbs, early in the film we remain curious about his personality. He is an engaging character. The world contains many Fred C. Dobbs.
From the opening segment of the film, when we see Dobbs begging for money from a wealthy passer-by played by John Huston, we question whether Dobbs is avaricious, lazy or merely wallowing in his misery. He buys a box of cigarettes with the money that the stranger gives him. However, after the two men have met a third time on the street, Huston tells him, “From now on you’re going to have to make your way through life without me.” Dobbs then gets a haircut and shave with the money that he receives from the stranger.
The next significant scene is one where we find Dobbs in a tavern and a small boy persuading him to buy a lottery ticket. Dobbs is not interested. He has just ripped up the last lottery ticket he bought. He eventually buys a ticket from the boy.
The turning point in the film comes about when Dobbs finds temporary work. When he asks a man in a bar for money the man is quick to answer, “I won’t give you a red cent. If you wonna make some money I’ll give you a job.”
While working for Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane) building a derrick, Dobbs meets a fellow drifter named Bob Curtin. After about two weeks of working for this man, they are brought back to the mainland on a ferry. McCormick tells them that he can’t pay them because he has no money. He tells them that he will pay them later. One day, as they sit in a town square they see McCormick, well dressed, with a lady in his arm. They confront him, and McCormick invites them to a bar to buy them a drink. There, a fight ensues and McCormick comes out the loser. In an honest gesture, they only take the three hundred dollars that they are owed and return McCormick his wallet, leaving the rest of the man’s money.
The action/adventure sequences in the film explore the internal condition of the characters: how they think, how they view the world, and their emotional and spiritual state. No scene serves a gratuitous purpose. The fight scene with McCormick is a precursor to the avarice that we witness in Dobbs later on in the film. The cathartic importance of these scenes is not that men can harden with unfavourable circumstances, but that Dobbs does not know how to internalize these events. Curtin, who accompanies Dobbs throughout most of the film, reacts differently.
In addition, consideration must also be given to Cody’s fate. Cody, a loner engaged in the stringent pursuit of a better life for his family, moves in the shadow of murderers. His fate is tied to the fate of the others.
Dobbs and Curtin rent a cot for fifty cents per night, where they meet Howard, a fast talking, old prospector who delivers a powerful monologue on the value of gold and human nature. Howard tells them that they can get $5,000 worth of gold from the nearby mountains. Howard explains: “The price of gold is worth what it is because of the human labour that went into getting it.” This dialogue, which is essentially a monologue in its intensity, can easily rival Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy because of its multi-faceted probing of human reality. It is almost as if Howard is talking to himself and the other two characters are privy to his insight.
Howard warns them that they will want more gold than they can carry down from the mountain. Howard continues: “As long as there’s no find the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.” The two men are mesmerized by the possibilities. This exchange is significant because it foreshadows the direction of the drama that is to follow. More importantly, it serves as the beginning of a lesson, a moral-of-the-story.
This is the point in the film when we realize that Howard is entertaining a wager with the viewer as to the nature of man. He is not interested in the gold per se, but rather in witnessing the transformation that some men undergo. John Huston’s direction in effect employs what the ancient Greeks called a “prolepsis,” that is, an innate anticipation of events that takes place without a rational effort on behalf of the subject. Howard tells the two future prospectors, “I’ve never known a prospector who died rich. That’s what gold does to a man’s soul.” Howard challenges the two men to disclose their genuine selves. At first, Dobbs and Curtin don’t think too much of him.
Interestingly, while Howard tries to tell them about the inherent weaknesses in human nature, the two men only manage to hear how much gold they can get. Howard goes on with his tease, “Prospecting is only good when you have a partner, but a partner can cause you to get killed. Alone is best, but you have to have a stomach for loneliness. Men are friends until they find the gold.” Are you two up to the task? he seems to ask them. This scene encapsulates the overall theme and meaning of the film. Howard is not avaricious, yet he has been a prospector for a very long time. He does not personally care for gold, but is willing to guide the other two to the mountain.
Howard’s incessant talk about gold reverberates in Curtin’s and Dobb’s heads. This leads to a prophetic conversation between the two:
Dobbs: “Do you believe what that old man that was doing all the talking at the Oso Negro said the other night about gold changing a man’s soul so he ain’t the same kind of a guy that he was before finding it?”
Curtin: “I guess that depends on the man.”
Dobbs: “That’s exactly what I say. Gold doesn’t carry any curse with it. It depends if the guy that finds it is the right guy. Gold can be as much of a blessing as a curse.”
The trek up the mountain embodies a kind of moral cleansing for Howard. What are we to make of this simple yet wise character that appears on the scene out of nowhere? Surely, he is atypical of one who seeks riches. In Howard, we have the key to the meaning of the story. He embodies the perennial point and purpose of all Aesopian tales: No matter how much advice one offers, fools will still rush into things. Howard’s character acts out the part of a wager, a jest. He seems to be betting on the judgment that his wisdom is sound and thus wants to prove it. Howard acts as a sort of neutral narrator of the tale in that he is certain of what is going to take place, but he is not capable of stopping it. In the subsequent scenes of avarice, infighting, mistrust, and cynicism we witness Howard intently looking on, as vindicating his wisdom all along. From the look on his face, he enjoys the other two jostling for the gold. Howard’s countenance and well-placed words are indicative of his anticipation of a total moral collapse in Dobbs’ and Curtin’s makeshift friendship.
Three weeks after purchasing his ticket, Dobbs wins the lottery. The three men pool their money together and buy the equipment needed for the trek and set out for the mountain. When they shake hands in a show of partnership, the old man looks on in curious anticipation. This is significant because Howard tells them that prospecting costs a lot of money. Howard tells them that the gold can’t just be ripped out of the mountain with one’s own hands. He tells them that they need equipment. This equipment will cost them money. Dobbs and his companion are young men, but they are nowhere as tough as the old man, who is constantly seen climbing ahead of them. The old man’s toughness is mental, not necessarily physical. This is John Huston’s manner of stating that wisdom is much more valuable than youth and physical strength.
Howard’s mental and spiritual resources allow him to endure the many difficulties that the other two men can hardly accommodate. Given the disparity between Howard’s age and that of Dobbs and Curtin, these scenes of physical travail can only be interpreted as a spiritual prowess that Howard possesses. Dobbs and Curtin are surprised by Howard’s stamina. “The old man is tough. He’s part goat, part camel,” they utter, but Dobbs never stops to think what makes the old man so tough. As they ascend the mountain, Dobbs is vexed by Howard’s stamina. He says: “Hey, if there was gold in those mountains how long would it have been there. Millions and millions of years. What’s our hurry? A couple days more or less ain’t going to make any difference.” This is merely a roundabout way of not admitting that he is fatigued. Also significant in the action scenes is the moral condition of the two men. This is especially exaggerated in Dobbs’ character. Dobbs’ will is defined by exhorting minimum effort to achieve the greatest gain.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre interweaves the clash of physical exertion and a strong will in a manner that goes a long way to point out the import of the inner workings of man. Bernard Travern (1882–1969) wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. The novel, like most of his other works: Bridge in the Jungle (1971); Ship of the Dead (1959); Rebellion of the Hanged (1954), are essentially action/adventure tales.
When a sand storm paralyzes their progress, Howard is the only one that has any clear understanding of what is taking place. A northern, Howard informs them. Dobbs’ violence begins when he becomes exhausted and attempts to hit Howard with a rock. “Leave him alone,” Curtin tells Dobbs. “Can’t you see the old man’s nuts?” Howard rebuttals, “Nuts. Nuts, am I? Let me tell you something, my two fine bedfellows. You’re so dumb there’s nothing to compare you with. You’re dumber than the dumbest jackass.” Howard then breaks out into a mocking dance as he continues, “You’re so dumb you don’t even see the riches you’re standing on with your own feet.” They finally find gold.
Part of Howard’s charm as a character is his ability to tell the truth while not moralizing. In a very prophetic moment, Howard tells Dobbs some essential truths while talking about gold. Howard says: “You know, gold ain’t like stone in a river bed; it don’t cry out until you pick it up.” This could easily apply to truth and wisdom. He continues: “You’re learning. Pretty soon I won’t be able to tell you a thing,” after he tells Dobbs how they are going to hide the gold from each other. Dobbs objects, “What a dirty, filthy mind you have.” Howard seems to be way ahead of the game when he answers: “Oh, no. Not dirty. Not dirty, baby. Only I know what kind of idea even supposedly decent people get when gold is at stake.” Howard is quick to cite the differences between being trustworthy and honest. He considers himself trustworthy because he is old and slow and can’t easily run away from the two younger men. Whether Howard knows more than he is letting on is a matter for speculation, but in telling them this, he is suggesting that he understands just how they think.
The problems begin shortly after the initial elation of finding gold has subsided. Dobbs, out of mistrust, wants to split the proceeds. At this point the old man gives them a speech about what honesty is and what gold does to people. This is the second major turning point in the story, given that now we begin to see that the old man is right. When asked how he will spend his money, the old man offers an unassuming reply: “I’m going to spend my time reading comic books and adventure stories.” Dobbs’ goes out in the middle of the night to check on his gold. Dobbs’ mistrust becomes pathological when Howard asks him to go down the mountain to the village to buy some materials. He objects.
Next we see Dobb’s paranoia manifesting itself as Curtin stumbles into his gold while looking for a gila monster under a rock. Dobbs points his gun at his partner. It is Curtin who goes to the village to buy provisions, instead. There he meets another American who also wants to dig for gold. The man follows Curtin back to the camp, where he is not welcomed. Dobbs is the first one to let the man know this. The stranger wants a percentage of the gold. But when they are about to “bump up” the stranger, a band of bandits is seen riding up the mountain toward their camp. Cody, the stranger, helps them to ward off the bandits in the gun battle that ensues. Cody is killed. As they look through his pockets to find out who he is, they find a letter from his wife telling him that she and their son miss him dearly.
The three men decide to leave the mountain after they have secured about $35,000 worth in gold each. At this point, Howard, in a mystical vein, tells them that it will take about another week to “break down the mine and put the mountain back in shape.” Dobbs finds this idea startling and asks, “Do what to the mountain?” Howard then gives them a lecture on the nature of gratitude: “Make her appear as she was before we came. We wounded this mountain and it’s our duty to close that wound. It’s the least we could do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s shown us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.” Again, the scope of Howard’s understanding transcends what he lets the other two men know. His decision to clean up the site of their digging for gold can be viewed as simple superstition. But this would be an oversimplification, given Howard’s character and the scenes of respect and veneration that he receives from the Indians for saving the child.
Howard reminds us of Charmides telling Socrates, “For I would almost say that self-knowledge is the very essence of temperance, and in this I agree with him who dedicated the inscription ‘know thyself!’ at Delphi.” (4)
But right when they are about to leave, some Indians come from the village to seek help for a dying boy. This can be explained as coincidence, but it is also consistent with the idea that good will is repaid in very vexing and unexpected ways. Howard says at one point: “You start out to tell yourself you’ll be satisfied with twenty-five thousand handsome smackers worth of it. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy and growing short on provisions and finding nothing, you finally come down fifteen thousand and then ten, finally you say, ‘Lord, let me just find five thousand dollars worth and never ask for anything more the rest of my life.” After the old man saves the boy’s life, the Indians come back to make Howard their guest of honour. The child’s father feels that he must pay his debt, otherwise all of the sacred spirits will become upset. This is consistent with Howard’s loyalty to the mountain. Dobbs, on the other hand, cannot make more out of this episode than to tell Howard, “Remember this next time you try to do a good deed,” as Howard goes away with the Indians. They promise to meet the old man two weeks later in Durango. Dobbs becomes suspicious and paranoid of his partner as they head to Durango alone without the old man.
A powerful scene ensues when Curtin has to constantly watch Dobbs. Dobbs’ paranoia becomes pronounced on their first night alone, when he attempts to kill Curtin. Dobbs shoots Curtin during the second night, off camera. When he goes to sleep, leaving Curtin for dead, he begins to reflect on the nature of conscience. “Conscience?” he questions. “What is it anyway? If we don’t have a conscience, I won’t worry.” Dobbs prescribes to the view that ignorance is bliss. The next morning when he is going to bury Curtin, he breaks out into a monologue about the dead man’s eyes being open. He begins to blame the dead man for bringing about his own demise.
Dobbs’ eyes become the central attraction of the scenes that follow. He sweats, walks around aimlessly, and talks to himself like a man who needs some convincing. His eyes tell a tale of repentance, of understanding what he can’t will himself to do. This is the first time in the film that we see conscience eating away at Dobbs, like a tormented soul.
Dobbs goes into his venerable conscience soliloquy, “What if his eyes are open, looking at me?” John Huston does a marvelous job of bringing the viewer into Dobbs’ head. The soliloquy is a particularly effective device in this instance given its non-dramatic, personal, and claustrophobic qualities. What we get instead is qualified, rationalized behavior that struggles to attain genuine justification for its motives. He goes back in the morning to bury Curtin but Curtin is not there. Dobbs searches for the wounded man in the surrounding area. Then he gets a brilliant idea. He convinces himself that perhaps a “tiger” took the dead man. “I got it. A tiger. Ah, yeah, that’s it. A tiger must have dragged him off to his land,” he tells himself. And then, in the manner characteristic of those who shy away from personal responsibility at all cost, he goes on, “Pretty soon not even the bones will be left to tell his story. Done as if by order.” He is happy to see that nature is on his side, thus assuaging the weight of his heavy conscience.
Howard is seen enjoying himself in a kind of Shangri-La, promise land of rest, food, drink, and women in the Indian village. He is revered as a medicine man for saving the life of the boy. The Indians inform him that Curtin has been found half dead. Howard and some Indians go out to find Dobbs, but poetic justice has already taken care of him.
The rest of the film involves a search for Dobbs on behalf of Howard, Curtin and several Indians who saved him. Retribution is the call of the day now, as some bandits kill Dobbs and steal his gold. They store the gold in some ruins outside of town, only to be captured by the townspeople while trying to sell Dobbs’ mules. Later the three bandits are executed.
The last sequence of the film entertains what seems to be the perspective of the mountain itself. Howard and Curtin go to retrieve the bags of gold. As the search party arrives on the site where the gold has been hidden, a sudden windstorm develops, blowing all the gold out of the bags and back into the mountain.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a brazen look at human life that avoids a trite climax. The film captures the essence of avarice without making a political statement of any sort. What we have here is a metaphysical rendering of human destructiveness and how this manifests itself in the physical world. I suppose that what John Huston has attempted to portray is akin to Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In other words, Huston has, in my estimation, avarice itself searching for a manner to tell a story.
The final episode has Howard breaking out into frantic laughter. He says, “Laugh Curtin old boy this is a great joke played on us by the lord, fate, nature or whatever you prefer. But, who or whatever played it had a sense of humor. The gold has gone back to where we found it.” The fable as allegory comes full circle when those involved reach the understanding that human existence possesses an underlying structure that must be respected.
John Huston’s direction does a marvelous job of effacing any sense of strenuous moralizing. Cinema achieves this best when it becomes so transparent that it does not become bogged down by its own medium. Cinema always places us in a given arena, while, depending on our sensibility, we can incorporate its meaning in our own lives. Ernst Cassirer reminds us of this when he writes in An Essay on Man: “Every work of art has an intuitive structure, and that means a character of rationality. Every single element must be felt as part of a comprehensive whole.” (5)
- Havelock Ellis. The Dance of Life. New York: Random House, 1929, p.265.
- The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Eds). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 99. Benjamin Jowett, who translated the Charmides in this edition writes about the Greek word Sophrosyne in relation to arrogance: “Sophrosyne was the exact opposite. It meant accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.”
- Karl Jaspers. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals. Translated by Ralph Manheim. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990, p. 8.
- The Collected Dialogues of Plato, p. 110.
- Ernst Cassirer. An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972, p. 167.