The Treasure of Sierra Madre – a movie list challenge #74

I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Rank: 74
List Appearances: 4/10
Average Rank: 31
Highest Rank: 8, on Newsweek’s The 100 Best Films of All Time: The Ultimate List
Total Final Score: 1452

As a child, I frequently watched movies on Turner Classic Movies, when I could. I watched so many Doris Day and Sandra Dee movies that I think the plot of every one of them now have molded into one big mess and I couldn’t really tell you now what happened in any of them. The same was the case for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I know I watched it during those formative years, but be it the fact that it doesn’t have a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart at its centre or themes that I would not have really understood at 7, I have long since forgotten it. When I think about treasure seeking westerns, my mind always goes to Mackenna’s Gold, a movie I haven’t seen since I was in my teens (we had a recorded VHS tape in our home that we frequently watched), but I now realize is a poor man’s Sierra Madre by comparison.

The movie follows an American wanderer, Dobbs (played by the iconic Humphrey Bogart), and Curtin (Tim Holt), as they go in search of gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. It garnered critical praise upon its release in 1948 and won 3 Academy Awards, including two for John Huston as director and for adapted screenplay, and his father, Walter Huston, for best supporting actor. Further to that, it ranked 30 on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies List, it is one of a few movies with a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is listed as favorite film to directors Stanley Kubrick and Sam Raimi. The character of Dobbs may have been one of the first in film history to “break bad” and was one of the inspirations to Walter White in Breaking Bad.

The film was shot on location in Mexico, and the cinematography is just gorgeous even in black and white. I can almost see the rich colors while I watched it. John Huston reportedly had to fight to film on location, something that was not done during that age. From an initial viewing, as well, I was surprised to see how many Latin American actors were hired to play the parts, and there was a care taken in portraying the Mexican villagers in one light versus the bandits, showing without anyone having to say that the criminal minority does not necessarily mean all Mexicans are as evil as the bandits. But more on that later.

At its core, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a morality tale. The opening scenes shows a down on his luck Dobbs (Bogart), begging for money from Americans using the same line each time. When he happens to come across the same man three times, he gets told to get a job. He accepts one and works for two weeks for a man. He later learns that the man is known to be a con artist and never pays his workers. Most men are too hard on luck to be able to do anything about it, though. When he and another American, Curtin, find him walking along the streets of Tampico, they beat him senseless for the money owed to them.

This all happens in the first quarter of the movie and hints at the nature of Dobbs well before he has even a sniff at gold. During a night spent in a flophouse, Dobbs and Curtin hear Howard (Walter Huston) talking about gold prospecting. He talks about the dangers of striking it rich and that no amount is enough and what gold will do to an otherwise decent man. Dobbs admits that there was no way it would happen to him, because once he had enough gold, he would simply stop.

After a bit of luck and an agreement among the three, they head off to the Sierra Madre mountains in search of gold. What follows is a tale of greed, treachery, and violence. The perils aren’t just from bandits, though there are shootouts even before the gold search begins. The worst are from within. Dobbs is the first to show his suspicions towards the other two, certain they are looking to steal his gold, kill him, and leave him for dead. He becomes consumed with this notion, no matter how much both show otherwise. When a man, played by Bruce Bennett (Tarzan himself!), follows Curtin back from the village midway through the movie, Dobbs convinces them that he must be killed to stop him from laying claim on their gold. But the bandits have also followed, and the four must work together to protect the mountain and themselves. After he is killed in the shootout, they find a letter his wife wrote him and Curtin suggests giving the widow a share of the gold. It is an unpopular suggestion with Dobbs who refuses and increases the strain on their fracturing friendship.

Bogart is great in the role. His descent into paranoia is gradual and only towards the end is on the edge of over-the-top. Tim Holt puts in a restrained performance as Curtin, and I found myself believing his every word. When he talks about how he wants to own a peach farm, I truly want him to get what he wants. Walter Huston is the stand-out, though. He brings a certain charm to his performance. There is an incredible scene when he saves the life of a little boy. The villagers are standing around him, watching as he goes through a routine he seems to just know, and I found myself holding my breath waiting for the boy to breath again.

In the standard 40s movie fashion, the morality of the movie relies on the clause that bad men must die and good men must live. It’s certainly an outdated concept now, but it is helped with an unexpected but satisfying finale, albeit different from what you would expect. The road to treasure leads to personal discovery for the men, and that is worth more than gold.

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