I felt like I had learned a few things after seeing . One: finding and mining gold is a LOT more difficult than I thought and way harder than it had been portrayed in other movies. Two: that the only reason you would go to Mexico at the time was specifically to find gold. Three: that the allure of overwhelming wealth is far more powerful than just about anyone realizes. Four: “We don’t need no stinking badges!” is a misquote, that actually came from this movie. The last bit, sadly, is probably the knowledge that I will spread most.
Dobbs (Bogart), an American down on his luck in Mexico, meets up with a compatriot named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together, with a grizzled prospector who’s seen a thing or two (Huston), they trek to the harsh and forbidding wilderness in the Sierra Madre mountains for one big score. Once they find it, they’ll have to protect it from bandits, mining companies eager to put a legal claim on the place, other prospectors, and the rising tide of greed within themselves. Combine the constant mental wariness with the back-breaking physical labor, and you just have to wonder how long someone could last in that situation.
The entire first act is a wonderfully protracted exercise in foreshadowing. Howard, the old prospector, makes no bones about telling Dobbs and Curtin that gold-mining is nowhere near as easy or fun as it sounds. There are an awful lot of things that you need to keep track of, and even more that you have to watch out for. The biggest thing to watch out for is greed, however; that’ll take a man over to the point that he’s doing unspeakable things. We watch both Dobbs and Curtin vehemently deny the possibility this could exist in their natures, and immediately we wonder which one of them will succumb first.
We see the character of Dobbs and Curtin quite well in this first part of the movie, and we get a good sense for what kind of people they are. After working on a construction project and being stiffed on their wages, they happen upon the foreman one day and demand their money. When they get it, they have the opportunity to take his entire roll but they don’t. Only the wages they were promised, no more, no less. It’s a great touch; when they have every reason to clean this guy out, they don’t. Their actions back up their words, and you just know they believe themselves to be fair and honest men.
The adventures in the mountains don’t go anywhere near the way the men expect; they have to deal with bandits, of course, and other prospectors sniffing around their claim. They also have to deal with the intense labor involved in extracting the gold from the mountain and the incredibly dangerous conditions they must endure to do so. Howard, who at first comes off as a loony old kook, seems to grow stronger every day he’s out there. He’s in his element, and the wisdom of his years becomes painfully evident.
I don’t want to go too much further into the film than I already have; it was fun watching the action play out in ways that surprised me. But I will say that the destructive nature of our lusts is on full display here, and Howard’s ability to see it coming far down the road and deal with it once it reaches him is truly a wonderful thing to watch. It’s fascinating to watch men break down without the safety net of civilization to guide their actions.
Both Bogart and Huston give great performances here; Bogart because he’s playing against his type, as a man who’s out of his element and in over his head, while Huston thoroughly lives in his performance as a guy who first annoys you, then inspires awe in you. He’s really the reason to watch this movie, and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar is thoroughly deserved.
I’ve developed an increasing fondness for stories in which the ending features the characters looking at the cost they’ve paid to achieve their goals and realizing that what they’ve overcome is so enormous that their original goals seem meaningless in comparison. I’m not sure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre quite fits that mold, but it brings it to mind. Knowing what goes into the search for gold definitely takes the luster out of it, and I imagine living through a claim scours away any romantic notions you may have had once.