‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ is a 1948 film of cultural and historical significance that won two Oscars for its writer/director John Huston, a titan of cinema and the man behind many of iconic actor Humphrey Bogart’s best movies. Plus, it’s also the source of the immortal quote by the Mexican bandit, Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya): “Badges? I don't have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
In 1929, John Huston published his first short story called 'Fool' in American Mercury magazine, and then set his sights on becoming a journalist. However, Huston didn’t have the requisite knack for facts; instead, he took to writing plays, a vocation that most playwrights of the era discovered led directly to Hollywood. Sure enough, Huston went under contract as screenwriter for Samuel Goldwyn. But after he went six months with no assignments, he turned to Universal Studios, where he penned screenplays for ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘Law and Order’, and ‘A House Divided’, all in 1932. The latter picture even starred his father, Walter Huston.
In the coming years, John Huston moved to Warner Bros. and earned Academy Award nominations for his screenplays ‘Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet’ (1940) and ‘Sergeant York’ (1941). At the same time, he earned a reputation for hard-drinking hedonism. Nevertheless, he remained productive, his films were profitable and he wanted to direct. He arranged with Warner Bros. that if his next screenplay for 'High Sierra' (1941) - a picture starring up-and-comer Humphrey Bogart - were a hit, then he would be allowed to direct his next picture and have his pick of source material. Of course, Huston’s deal paid off, and for his directorial debut, he chose to adapt Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective thriller, ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Although the studio had adapted Hammett’s book twice before to unremarkable effect, Huston’s treatment remained close to the source material and featured a cast of skilled actors (Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet). By the time Huston completed his fourth directorial effort for Warner Bros., World War II had reshaped Hollywood drives and, like many of his contemporaries such as John Ford, the director made wartime documentaries. Many were considered controversial and were banned for openly acknowledging issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or U.S. intelligence failures that resulted in major casualties. His first post-war narrative film would be ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’.
Huston first read the novel by B. Traven in 1936, and thought it would make a good film. He would have to wait ten years, however, due to World War II, but Warner's held the project for him at the insistence of producer Henry Blanke. ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ became one of the first American films to be shot entirely on location, around the village of Jungapeo, Mexico. Several films by Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau had been made abroad for American studios, but they were documentaries and were brought to companies only after they were filmed. Huston's film was also expensive; the ever-growing budget topped out at $US3 million. Insistent upon perfection, Huston plowed through his budget and slipped further behind schedule, prompting the first argument between the director and Bogart, now on their fourth collaboration. During this spat, Bogart, eager to wrap the film in order to attend a boat race in Honolulu, complained yet again to Huston. In response, Huston reached across the table, grabbed Bogart's nose between his two fingers and twisted hard. Tears came to the actor's eyes, but not one word was spoken, and Bogart never complained about the film schedule again.
Though the daily rushes impressed Warner Bros., Jack L. Warner nearly went berserk with the weekly expenditures. After viewing one scene, Warner threw up his hands and shouted, “Yeah, they're looking for gold all right – mine!” During another screening of rushes, Warner watched Bogart stumble along in the desert for water. Warner jumped up in the middle of the scene and shouted to a bunch of executives, “If that S.O.B. doesn't find water soon I'll go broke!”
‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ tells the story of three men stranded penniless in Tampico, Mexico: two hard-luck cases, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), and a sage old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston). We get to know them bumming around for money for meals, taking work where they can, sleeping in shelters. They’re cheated out of wages by a soulless employer, get in a spectacularly sloppy bar fight with him, and finally pool together just enough money to launch a doomed plan to prospect for gold. As their dreams start to materialise, human nature begins to tear the men apart.
Many critics consider ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ to be Huston's finest cinematic offering, a gritty depiction of the cancerous effects of gold lust upon a man's soul. Yet there are countless films that deal with the subject matter of money and greed and the deadly combination the two can create. Digging just below the dusty, sun-baked surface of the film, you can find a variety of intersecting explorations taking place. The film takes a look at American masculinity, inherent character, justice, the unfairness of life, and the ways poverty as much as greed can twist the choices a person makes.
Unlike most studio releases of the era, the film’s depiction of wretched moral depravity is not sweetened by a studio ending, where the ugly impulses of greed are suppressed by a higher moral calling (Bogart never shaves). Instead, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ resolves in a more Hemingway-style conclusion, containing a kind of stoic acceptance and optimism by the final scenes. A dude also gets his head lopped off via machete.
Despite the thematic artistry, Warner protested against the grim ending that leaves a character beheaded and his two surviving partners penniless. Nevertheless, after a few positive screenings in 1947, Warner called it “definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made. It is really one that we have always wished for.” James Agee, writing in Time magazine, declared ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ as “one of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk; and the movie can take a place, without blushing, among the best ever made... One of the most visually alive and beautiful movies I have ever seen.”
What makes this film stand out is the artistry behind the movie. From the direction of Huston, to the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Huston's father, Walter, to the stellar camera work of Ted McCord, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ achieves an uncompromising look into the dark side of human nature.
Bogart, in what many consider his greatest performance, got an opportunity to shed his suave leading man image created seven years prior in ‘The Maltese Falcon’. Far from the effortlessly cool Bogey characters of ‘Casablanca’ and the noirs that made him a star, Bogart (who gave some of his best performances in darker roles like ‘The Caine Mutiny’ and ‘High Sierra’) plays a man unhinged, frenzied by paranoia and avarice. Prior to filming, Bogart encountered a critic while leaving a New York nightclub. “Wait 'til you see me in my next picture,” he said, “I play the worst shit you ever saw”.
Prior to filming, Humphrey Bogart encountered a critic while leaving a New York nightclub. “Wait 'til you see me in my next picture,” he said, “I play the worst shit you ever saw”.
In Fred C. Dobbs, a pathetic vagabond scouring Tampico in 1925, he has no apparent past and no certain future. He asks for handouts (“Say, buddy. Will you stake a fellow American to a meal?”), plays the numbers, taunts children and picks up half-smoked cigarette butts from the ground. Bogart’s character undergoes a moral metamorphosis from a congenial, average jerk of a guy to a murderous monster gripped by paranoia.
Walter Huston, having been a matinee idol for the last twenty years, was unsure of his ability to play the crusty prospector. On seeing the depth of the elder Huston's performance, Humphrey Bogart famously said, “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.” It took heavy prodding by his son and the removal of his false teeth to produce the character for which Huston would capture the Best Supporting Actor Oscar of 1948. His son also collected Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars, making it the only time in Academy history for son and father to win in the same year.
After the film’s release, John Huston would direct other actors in some of their finest roles. He teamed with Bogart again on ‘Key Largo’ (1948) and ‘The African Queen’ (1951), and the latter film finally earned Bogart his Oscar for Best Actor. He directed Marilyn Monroe in her final performance on ‘The Misfits’ (1960). And he continued to take on challenging material, or scripts that meant a technically difficult shoot, and he often pursued these pictures solely for the opportunity to travel to exotic locations. He famously wanted to hunt in Africa, so he shot ‘The African Queen’ in Uganda and throughout the Congo; he went to Morocco for ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1975); and he returned to Mexico for ‘Under the Volcano’ (1984). Over the years, the director also took various acting roles. In Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ (1974), he appeared as crooked landowner Noah Cross. He also voiced Gandalf in Arthur Rankin, Jr and Jules Bass’ animated adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga.
‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ had a heavy impact on another film that explored the destructive power of greed some sixty years later. Paul Thomas Anderson cited the film as a major influence on his 2007 masterpiece, ‘There Will Be Blood’. Anderson watched the film repeatedly before making his own, and Huston’s distinct voice eventually shaped Daniel Day Lewis’ iconic performance as Daniel Plainview. The two films explore different aspects of this central theme - where Huston’s film looks at the way greed insinuates itself between partners and sows distrust between individuals who otherwise have no reason to hate each other, Anderson’s film focuses on the way greed isolates an individual and feeds his most narcissistic tendencies.
Other notable fans included director Stanley Kubrick, who listed ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ as his fourth-favourite film of all time in a 1963 edition of Cinema magazine; director Sam Raimi, who ranked it as his favourite film of all time in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes; and ‘Breaking Bad’ creator Vince Gilligan, who also cited the film as one of his personal favourites.
In 1990, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film was among the first 100 films to be selected.
John Huston, a filmmaker of legendary skill and daring, had directed his greatest film with his father as the star, commanded an unforgettable performance by his friend and frequent collaborator, and captured the stunning backdrop of the Mexican wilderness. His story of humanity’s trivial ambitions in the face of nature found a balance somewhere between irony and fate, although the greater message seemed to be how the world at large feels no sense of obligation or sympathy to those who inhabit it.