Friday, December 22, 2006

Dir. by John Huston

John Huston took an eccentric book by a reclusive German anarchist about prospectors, bandits, priests, Indians, and oil men and turned it into a very watchable Hollywood film. That Huston compromised enough of the story to make it filmable while keeping the central meaning of the film is no small achievement.

The premise of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is unchanged from B. Traven’s novel. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart at his most unshaven, un-sociable, ugly best) is a down on his luck oil field worker, reduced to panhandling. He meets Curtin (Tim Holt) when an unscrupulous boss tries to cheat them of their wages. The two men have had enough. They quit working in the oil fields and take up the suggestion of Howard (Walter Huston, John’s father) to go prospecting for a gold mine. They duly set off for the Sierra Madre and find their gold. Not without a lot of backbreaking labor and the attentions of bandits (Badges? We don’t got no badges! We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!). All that stuff is just the garnish on the plate though. The real menace is the corruption that comes of being a in a lonely place with men you have no deep personal loyalty to, while there is a massive amount of gold piling up.

All that is much as B. Traven wrote it. However, Huston (necessarily, I believe) cut certain things. Gone is B. Traven’s relentless anti-clericalism, gone too is the real sense of desperation and talk of Bolshevik revolution in the oil camps. The biggest loss though are the many parables told by Howard of the destructive power of greed and the Indians’ struggle to deal with the white man’s lust for the gold hidden in the mountains. While it was no doubt a sacrifice that had to be made to the gods of bringing in the film at an appropriate running time, the loss is not negligible. Howard’s little morality tales are what give Dobbs’ progression from a tough, brave, and hard-working man into a murdering brute a tragic dimension.

Huston was not a pantywaist who just couldn’t handle a bit of talk. In one impressive sequence where clever villagers trap some bandits in their lies, Huston shot the entire part in Spanish. Not a subtitle to be seen, but anyone who’s been paying attention will figure out what it means when the voices rise in angry denials and the Federale captain shouts, “Carguen! Apunten! Fuego!”

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic adventure tale, but one that has dropped its ideological baggage along the way. That’s a pretty fair compromise for Hollywood, and Sierra Madre is deservedly considered a film classic.
-Dave Hardy

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