“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” has all the trappings and appearance of a traditional Western adventure. Even though it takes place in the Great Depression, it still instills a sense of manifest destiny as the main characters set off to find the titular treasure. The twist, however, is that they find the treasure barely a quarter into the movie; this is when the themes of adventure die down, and complex character development starts to set in.
The story follows Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, “The Maltese Falcon) and Curtin (Tim Holt, “Law of the Badlands”), two Americans down on their luck and stuck in a Mexican oil-town. When one of them takes a gamble and ends up winning a small jackpot in a lottery, they decide to use the money to go prospect for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains with the help of an experienced prospector, Howard (Walter Huston, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”).
As has been mentioned, they strike it rich pretty early in the film. The drama comes from what happens after. While it’s hard not to sympathize with Dobbs as the film begins, he starts descending into madness when he finally has what he wants. He becomes protective and paranoid of his prize – a prize that isn’t worth all that much in the big picture.
The other characters play very well off of him, most noticeably Howard, the oldest and wisest of the trio. While he appears to be a stereotypical crazy mountain man at first, the events that transpire portray him as the moral compass of the cast. He is the voice of reason in Dobbs’ insane world.
If Howard and Dobbs sit on each end of the madness/sanity scale, it’s Curtin who sits in the center, gravitating towards whatever end is most sensible in any given situation. When Howard leaves to briefly do something, Dobbs starts to have an undeniable impact on Curtin’s well-being.
The characters are surrounded by a world that does not care what they want. The mountains are packed with dangerous wildlife and bandits who famously don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges. There’s a small village that tries to appeal to the trio’s more altruistic nature with a sick child, and another American who stumbles on their operation. These extra characters are important to look at not so much as characters, but tests of the protagonists’ true nature. It’s not just the dialogue that sells the characters’ moral descent, but the actions they share as well.
Ultimately, the film is a close and harsh look at the nature of greed. Dobbs goes from a likable and sympathetic protagonist to a megalomaniac as soon as the gold starts flowing in, and his interactions with the characters and environment emphasize that very well. It’s a useful case study of the corrupting nature of treasure, even if that “treasure” isn’t very valuable anyway.
Film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
Genre: Depression-era Western
Release Date: January 6, 1948 (Original), January 27, 2016 (Cinemark Classics Series)