Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Treasure of the Sierra Madre poster"I know what gold does to men’s souls," the old-timer ominously states to the eager young men before him. His comment foreshadows the subsequent action in the revered film noir gem The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), in which morals fall by the wayside and madness breaks out as the men venture through Mexico on a quest to claim material happiness.

The tale begins in Tampico, Mexico, in the year 1925, after the Mexican Revolution and during a time when banditos roam the desert and federales try to enforce justice. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a down-on-his-luck American trying to scrape together a living in a town where a foreigner can’t even shine shoes to make a buck. And so he begs from his fellow Americans to get money for a decent meal. It seems as though Lady Luck smiles upon Dobbs when he manages to hook a hard-labour job, only to be duped out of his money by the sleazy manager. But not all is lost in his unprofitable venture as he befriends a fellow scrounger by the name of Bob Cortin (Tim Holt) who helps him bully the money out of their greedy ex-employer. Although they wreak havoc on the manager, the scene shows the honest nature of the two men, who only take what is owed them, throwing hundreds of pesos back in the man's bloodied face.

Dobbs and Cortin check in to an old dorm and encounter Howard (Walter Huston), a friendly old-timer who has seen the world and talks about the universal dangers that gold bestows upon a man, such as turning him against his friends or provoking an insatiable lust for that glittery rock. As Howard looks on knowingly, Dobbs vows that if he struck it rich he would only take what he needed. Later, Dobbs and Cortin start to consider what it would be like to have all that gold and they enlist the help of Howard to get them started. Pooling their money, they agree to be partners and set out for the Sierra Madre.

They hike through blazing sun, howling wind, overgrown jungle, thirst, and fatigue. But led by Howard’s know-how, the trio finally find the spot for the big pay-off and build a secluded gold mine in the mountains, careful to play the part of hunters to any outsider they meet by chance. One night when weighing the gold flakes, they start chatting about how the gold should be divided and who is the most trustworthy. Without reaching a consensus, it is decided that each man will take responsibility for his own share. When the men discuss their dreams of what they will do with their pay-out, Cortin and Howard express a desire to settle down while Dobbs reveals his short-term, greedy cravings. And thus the suspicions begin. Dobbs’s partners notice him acting strangely when he starts talking to himself, a characteristic which Howard finds unsurprising for a gold-miner. Trust issues emerge when Cortin accidentally discovers Dobbs’s hiding place for his stash.

Cortin then reluctantly heads to town for supplies and unwillingly brings back another eager American (Bruce Bennett) to their camp. The three men decide that it’s best to kill the stranger before he takes off with their gold or reports their illegal mining operation to the authorities. But the murder is stalled when a band of banditos come across the group. We are introduced to the only English-speaking outlaw of the group (Alfonso Bedoya) whom the Americans simply call "Gold Hat." He claims that they are Federales, but is unable to produce a “stinkin’ badge” to Dobbs and a gun fight ensues. The real Federales appear and chase off the bandits, but not before they manage to shoot and kill the American outsider. The partners come across a letter on the dead man from his wife and they realize from her words that this man had also come down with the fabled gold-lust and they decide that it’s best for them to pack up their operation before succumbing to the same fate.

On the long road back, Howard is enlisted by several harmless villagers to come and revive a young boy who has fallen in some water. Howard succeeds and is revered by the villagers, who will not let him go on his way until they have paid their debt to him. Cortin offers to take Howard’s things (including his gold) to Durango with them until he is able to join them. Later that night Dobbs gives into lunacy as he envisions Cortin plotting to take all of the money for himself. The soft-spoken Cortin denies such allegations, but Dobbs gives his word that he will not be the first to fall asleep. The next night, an exhausted Cortin collapses and Dobbs steals his gun away. Without a shred of remorse, Dobbs marches Cortin away from camp and shoots him twice. He leaves the body there, not knowing that the bullets only wounded Cortin and he was able to crawl to some villagers who in turn bring him to Howard to be patched up. Meanwhile, Dobbs attempts to out-talk his guilty conscience as the flames of the campfire appear to engulf him in their hell. The next day he discovers that Cortin is gone, but convinces himself that the animals got to him. He continues to Durango and practically falls into a stagnant waterhole when he is parched from thirst. He looks up to see Gold Hat standing above him. Gold Hat feigns friendliness and then he and two others kill Dobbs in order to sell his donkeys and animal hides. They see the sacks of gold on the donkeys and dump it out, thinking that it’s only sand to weigh the hides down for selling.

In town, Gold Hat and his bandit friends are caught and made to dig their own graves before standing in front of the firing squad. Cortin and Howard ride into town just as the shots are fired. They are tipped off that the bandits have left the bags of gold by some nearby ruins, but are left to utter disappointment when they realize that the gold flakes have blown away in the wind. Howard begins to laugh at the cruel joke that has been played on them until both he and Cortin are in stitches over the whole thing. They decide that “the worst isn’t bad when it finally happens” and decide to pursue, without the gold, the dreams they had talked about while searching for their treasure in the Sierra Madre.

The sense of authenticity of the Mexican characters in this film is notable: the casting included villagers, well-known figures, and possibly even a real bandit, all from the surrounding area of the movie’s on-location set in Mexico. Not only are the small talk, greetings, and the commerce spoken in Spanish, but so are many of the crucial scenes. Without subtitles, the audience is left to piece together the meaning from situational clues and Howard’s knowledge of Spanish. The effect is a mark of Mexican culture in a storyline dominated by American presence. It appears that the English language takes on a sinister character as it is only spoken by selfish Americans and the ruthless Gold Hat. This movie is part of a darker era of film, beginning at the end of World War II, where bandits are more interested in guns and ammo than gold and riches, and American greed takes the forefront as the elusive villain. Mexico is seen as a treasure chest of natural resources just waiting to be opened. The land has its own way of governing with its own inherent judgment. At the end of the film it’s as though the cacti are grabbing onto the cloth sacks that held the men’s gold, as if keeping what belongs to Mexico in Mexico. Coincidentally, "Sierra Madre" translates a "Mother of the Mountains"; the "mother" on whom the men bestowed thanks for their gold as they waved good-bye to their mine is also the mother who wouldn’t let her precious resources ride away into the sunset. The "cruel" joke played on the men almost personifies the Sierra Madre into an authority, one whose final decision always sides with her country. Perhaps in this film it is not the gold itself which is the treasure, but the lesson learned.

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