The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) may be considered one of the few blessings the patriarchy has offered us.

I will add the disclaimer too, that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not really a film noir.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn't here on the Classic Film Noir website by sufferance however, and as a Humphrey Bogart film it can be enjoyed on these merits alone, and although it's an adventure tale, there is plenty paranoia and deceit on offer.

One observation from the off, and something that seems to jar somehow, is that it’s hard to read about this film without the word ‘great’ being used and overused, and then used again, and overused some more, on account of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre being a great film.

You know.

To begin with, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ranked 30th on the American Film Institute’s 100 cinematic milestones list, when in fact is possibly not really a milestone of a movie, and in places more like a millstone of a movie.

Also this 'great' movie was apparantly fourth ever favourite film of Stanley Kubrick, and the actual favourite film of Sam Raimi, so it must be great; perhaps.  

Perhaps it is great.

In its day, studio boss Jack Warner thought it was great and called The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ‘the greatest picture we ever made’, and there are a string of critical comments to back this up:

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best of the best things Hollywood has done since it learned to talk."

— James Agee

"One of the strongest of all American movies."

— Pauline Kael

By All Means GREAT! Humphrey Bogart, stupidly greedy and doomed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

On Roger Ebert’s website, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of several films which stand with the words GREAT MOVIE printed in laurels at the top of the page. 

To complement this there are scores of blogposts and newspaper articles which also affirm this claim, even though you barely require them as proof.

It has therefore somehow becoming axiomatic that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film, which when in fact all it maybe is, is good.

Now that the greatness has been dealt with, we can meet the men, the greedy sweating dolts who occupy this picture.

The men in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are patriarchs of the worst sort, Humphrey Bogart’s character most especially. The men are self-pitying, bullying, and think only of themselves and their hunger for the most part.

There is a woman in the film, but she says nothing and merely walks by, somehow as a reminder to the men that sex exists, and that they must also hunger for that too, as well as gold and food.

She is replaced very quickly too with the figure of the director John Huston. That is, as the freshly cleaned and groomed Bogart watches her recede, so she is suddenly substituted with the looming figure of Huston.  

ABOVE: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, woman replaced by John Huston street scene.

Much is also made of the men's stupidity. The first sequence of action shows how Bogart and Tim Holt are easily gulled into working for a huckster who cheats them out of hundreds of dollars of wages.

When they get to the mountains, it's even worse, when they show that they know less than zero about minerals, nothing about prospecting and don't even know what gold is. 

At one stage, Bogart gleefully confesses that he believed that all one had to do was pick gold up from the ground and carry it into a bank.

In the Balance- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

All the good things in life have in fact collided to create this male misery, and the bums that they are can only in fact complain of one thing, which is being victims of the free market.

John Huston, the great patriarch, reminds us of this by appearing in the film in a role not unlike that he was pick up decades later, when he played Noah Cross in Chinatown. Huston stands tall and unapologetically firm about the fact that it’s every man for themselves (not everyone for themselves, no).

The morality of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is also too plain to be of interest. It’s the old corrupting power of gold and the tropes which this film expanded upon and played out are still being revisited in The Simpsons, for that is about all of their worth ― not even comedy gold as it happens.

The message we face is that the lure of riches will causes the paranoid to live out their violent fantasies, as they work through a quick series of mad insights into pride, bullying and piggish levels of covetousness.

Add selected 'Central American' tropes, and fascinating trips to the local villages, and the stark contrast between these and the maruading bandits, more stupid men on the rampage.

Pleased / Displeased

The characters throughout are barely blunt representatives of manhood; the greedy one who goes mad; the young naïve one who learns a lesson; and the grizzled old timer (played by Walter Huston, John Huston’s father). 

This old guy character has not only seen it all, but doesn’t object to seeing it all again, and brings gales of ironic laughter to the misery. Not only that but he immediately sets the other two men against each other, and more importantly, against themselves also.

The purges of Senator McCarthy resulted in the destruction of some careers, and Huston suffered in his way.  He directed two more important films in Hollywood, Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), but like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, it is possible that John Huston was effectively driven out of the USA, taking up residence in Ireland in 1952.

“I left the country,” he explained later, “because I could not abide with what McCarthy was doing to America … In some ways, I trace the Nixon years with its disgrace to the McCarthy period.”
Huston was correct to make that assumption, by the way.  Nixon recounts that he joined the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) "at the end of 1947." 

However, he was already a HUAC member in early February 1947, when he heard "Enemy Number One" Gerhard Eisler and his sister Ruth Fischer testify.

Like other disillusioned liberals Huston concluded that the end was nigh: “The idea of America, the America of our founding fathers, was lost,” he said later. “It stopped being that America and became something else. And then one wondered whether it ever had been America except for the founding fathers and a few rare souls. Was it all an illusion?”

So The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) remains a good film, and not a great one. There is no great nor even good cinematography in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; it is a point and shoot job as is normal with John Huston on the camera.

Tim Holt. End = Nigh in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Tim Holt at Wikipedia

Finally, the music too, it even adds to this rather mundane atmosphere, harking back to the adventure movies of the 30s. The music especially, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is of little consequence, and might have been where the picture could have pulled that greatness properly into focus.

Nothing coarse about it, however. It's still massive entertainment. Just not great

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