After a slew of promotional films for the American military John Huston adapted this dark novel by reclusive writer B. Traven (no one even knows his real name). Shooting on location in Mexico – rare for the time – Huston crafted a harsh warning against the perils of greed, even turning what should have been an unhappy ending into a hopeful conclusion.
Sierra Madre pivots around Humphrey Bogart, who was never scarier than as Dobbs. Bearded and grimy, Bogart sheds his familiar bar-skulking wiseguy persona for this descent into Heart of Darkness-esque madness. Or perhaps the better analogy is Macbeth, whose paranoia and sleeplessness he shares as he mumbles to himself.
Maybe the best of the movie is old-timer Howard’s monologue on gold, delivered in (of all places) a drifter’s dormitory. Check out his exchange with a fellow bum:
HOWARD: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
BUM: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
HOWARD: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
BUM: I never thought of it just like that.
HOWARD: Well, there’s no other explanation, Mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.
Walter Huston – John’s father – hams the role of Howard to the hilt. Here’s the rest of the conversation:
HOWARD: Aah, gold’s a devilish sort of thing, anyway. You start out, you tell yourself you’ll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it. So help me, Lord, and cross my heart. Fine resolution. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy, and growin’ short on provisions, and findin’ nothin’, you finally come down to 15,000, then ten. Finally, you say, “Lord, let me just find $5,000 worth and I’ll never ask for anythin’ more the rest of my life.”
BUM: $5,000 is a lot of money.
HOWARD: Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.
Of course, he’s more than game to join Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt) on a treasure hunt. The ensuing distrust between the three pretty much proves his point. Dobbs isn’t satisfied with his share, and, like all tragic heroes, over steps his limits and dies with nothing.
This should be a dismal ending, but Huston lightens the tone when Howard and Curtin laugh away the loss of the gold. Howard has the native village to go back to, while Curtin has orange picking in California. His description of “whole families” picking fruit in the fields and then laying down together singing songs by bonfires paints the image of an idyllic community. It even sounds communist in contrast to the capitalist connotations of gold. Films always, purposefully or not, reflect their societies – did Traven and Huston serve a cautionary tale of greedy capitalism wrapped in Western rags?