The Greatest films of all time: 43.The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)(USA)



Since “Greed” of Erich von Stroheim in 1924, and the “Gold Rush” comedy of Charles Chaplin in 1925, there had not been any film to address the greed of man for gold and wealth, the main incentive of white Europeans to immigrate to the new world of America. The film, perhaps the greatest work of the American Screen writer and filmmaker, John Huston is an adaptation of B. Tavern’s 1927 novel of the same name. John Huston who gave his father a role in the film as “Howard” or “the old man” granted him an academy award for the best supporting actor, started his film career as a writer. His first triumph in script writing was for the third Hollywood version of “Maltese Falcon” in 1941, and “the Killers” in 1946 of Ernest Hemingway, his only work adaptation on the silver screen that this great American literary liked.     


While John Huston had already tried in directing with a few minor works, “Maltese Falcon” was his first great achievement that was hailed to this day by the critics.  But “The treasure of Sierra Madre” was his first great classic that not only him, but placed his friend and actor, Humphrey Bogart a high spot in the history of cinema who later on once again surpassed expectations in “The African Queen”. As we will see the greatness of these two works of John Huston and Bogart are in their clear distinction from the other Hollywood films of then and later, specially where Bogart plays mostly the same roles of a macho or man of testosterone in crime dramas. Watching Bogart on the screen, particularly for his fans picturing him always as a hero, in these two distinct films as a low-life with torn clothes, dirty hands and blackened face, alone not only surprising and award winning, but jaw dropping and unbelievable to this day. Only in these two films with the guidance and assistance of John Huston, Bogart was able to stand out as a capable actor, who was robbed in his other films just for commerciality.


A Classic of difference:

Since American films coming out of Hollywood from its inception to this day, are principally commercial and crowd pleasing, to be classic and great, they have to be different. Even many of great American films of the past and present have had the commercial and box office elements, and have been of action, adventure, and in drama, they have been melodrama appealing to the public. Rare American films, as the time has gone by and most innovations and novelties have been done, possess a classic masterpiece element to place them aside the greatest world cinematic arts. One of these rarity is “The treasure of Sierra Madre” and John Huston and Bogart were both lucky or talented to repeat this once again later on in “The African Queen” together.


This great classis was the first Hollywood to be filmed on location and outside US and Hollywood, in Mexico. It has also been the first for Bogart, as it mentioned earlier to have an unconventional role. It also involved John Huston’s father, Walter Huston in a pivotal supporting role that earned him an Oscar, where he thanked his son officially for having given him such a role to show his potential. It also was one of the very first American film to run another language than English, Spanish of Mexican, without translation on the original screen version, though understood well by the audience, showing the power of the visual art of cinema. This fact was against a background of a very dialectical film, having many dialogues, between the principal players, often too philosophical for ordinary audience who had gone perhaps to enjoy an action western with their idol actor, Humphrey Bogart.

The story runs in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, where there are rich Americans such as John Huston, playing himself, and many drifters such as Fred (Humphrey Bogart) and James Cody (Bruce Bennet) and Howard (Walter Huston) trying to find a job in the oil rigs for $8/day. Howard, the old man, talking about the gold mines up on the mountains of Sierra Madre, attracts the other two, who join him on the rich-getting adventure. Not imagining the hardship of climbing the desert mountain at the start, they go through all the sufferings of thirst, hunger, pains, first comradery then animosity, until reaching the destination.


Through rich dialogues at a real life level, and well fit into the story, their behaviors and actions, the three partners while realizing “Gold changes a man’s soul”, and trying to resist, the evil overcomes them. While in some  ways, the film is a copy of “Greed”, but a very good one and also different, as not being a silent, but with rich dialogues, conveying the message of the evil greed for gold or wealth. Looking back on the history of cinema, many other filmmakers at the time and later on, perhaps wished to have made this masterpiece, but the fortune happened to be of John Huston, and Bogart who played a memorable act, not able to repeat until “The African Queen”.


The story goes on taking many Shakespearian moments, well weaved, directed and acted, such as the greed, the suspicion, rivalry, guilt, redemption and more. Huston who respected and loved Chaplin as “God” of cinema, and hailed his works such as “Gold Rush” with this film, was able to get close to the master of cinema, but at a dramatic level, by alluding the film being his best. The film, one of the few in its time, not ending well and with happiness as American audience expected, like in “Greed” ends up in animosity, fighting, killing each other and misery. Fred kills his partner, James and then he himself is killed by the Mexican bandits. Worst, the gold “goes back where we found”, acclaims the old man, Howard who survives with their new partner Bob Curtin (James Cody).      


The above is a short story line of the film, but the film needs to be seen scene by scene, reflect on and learn a big life lesson, a major commitment of cinema that hardly seen in American films. Not to be quite dry with philosophy of life, that has been fit in the dialogues and the story, the film contains some action, such as the train robbery of the Mexican bandits like in the rest of American westerns, fighting and killings. But the film keeps up with its enlightening commitment with its great dialogues and actions, such as “water precious, sometimes more than gold” when the threesome are run out of water, “I thought there will be sacks of gold up here and what I need to do is pack them and take them to the closest bank”,…


Through the storyline, the dialogues amidst the suspicions, hyper-vigilance to each other, arguing and fighting, there is discussion of what each will do with their gold. The answers are interesting as the old man will not be looking for gold anymore, James will start a peach farm back in his home countryside, and Fred will think about it later when he gets to town, where he would be buying 10 things of everything.


Not just a fine story:

“The treasure of Sierra Madre” is not just a superb story and script for the screen, it is a classis and masterpiece for the finest performance of the stars of the time, Bogart and John’s father, Walter Huston. Bogart, despite being a commercial actor by then, knew well he needs to play in this film to show his acting talent. So when he learnt that Huston is preparing to direct the film and Warner’s Brothers had already other actors in mind, started badgering Huston for the part, and said to a critic “Wait till you see me in my next picture…I play the worst shit you ever saw”. That shit was his finest life performance later on according to him and others. Despite his great acting in the film, when Bogart saw the depth performance of Walter Huston, he said “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder”.

As mentioned above, the subject of greed for gold and wealth seeking, one more time needed to be depicted on the screen, but with dialogues so the audience capture the message, as the earlier films of “Greed” and “Gold Rush” were both silent. So the dialogues carried and performed very well in a Shakespearian style that was very powerful. The film in black and while with the cinematography of Ted McCord and music score of Max Steiner and above all by the genius direction of John Huston, created such a classic that could not be easily forgotten.  The long and close up shots, the proper lighting all in the magical black and white color, conveyed the content of the story in a very Shakespearian style without much technical imposition.       


In closing remarks “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“The Treasure of Sierra Madre” though is not that original and has been adapted from the novel of B.Traven’s of 1927, and the “Greed” of Erich von Stroheim in 1924, and somewhat less by the “Gold Rush” of Charles Chaplinof 1925, due to several elements deserves some originality. First of all it is a sound film, while the other earlier two were silent, and with its powerful dialogues, makes it an original classic of its own kind. Moreover the finest performances by Bogart and Walter Huston makes it more an original example of acting to be followed by other actors in the later years in similar realistic films. Also filming on location in rough places of Durango and Tampico of Mexico, were all original specially for the American films at the time. Lastly the film was original for Bogart, Walter and John Huston themselves as they never before had such experiences in their resumes as in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” is foremost in the direction of the film by John Huston who also wrote the script, and started his career as a scenarist, and had been already regarded not only as a script writer, surprising even Hemingway for the film adaptation of his short story, “The Killers”, but also being hailed by the great writer and playwright, Arthur Miller as “He could easily be a professor of literature”. The other great technicality of the film is in its superb acting of Bogart and Walter Huston who both played their finest life performances. Lastly the cinematography of Ted McCord and the soundtrack of Max Steiner were rarity in American films then and for years to come. More importantly the technicality of the film unlike other technical films is not over-imposing, so it could be easily missed, like in Chaplin and De Sica films.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” has been on both critics who loved it from its premier to this very day, being on the most greatest films of all time list, to other filmmakers such as the great Stanley Kubrick who ranked the film as his fourth on his favorite list and adapted it in his film “The Killing”, to Sam Peckinpah who shows the influence in “The Wild Bunch” and Paul Thomas Anderson who watched it every night while writing “There will be blood”.
  4. Survival:“The Treasure of Sierra Madre” has survived well to this very day in its admiration by many filmmakers worldwide and its influence on them and their films and also still being a joy to watch, enlighten and reflect upon the human’s nature.

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