After hitting paydirt in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston were eager to make more movies together. They began Across the Pacific (1942), a war propaganda film with Falcon co-stars Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.
During filming, Huston knew the next story he wanted to make with Bogart, an adaptation of a novel by the reclusive German writer B. Traven. It was a story of the corrosive effect of greed on a cynical soul set in the golden mountains of Mexico.
Before Huston could finish Across the Pacific, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to make war films. With much of Across the Pacific filmed, Warner Brothers had no choice but to replace Huston with Vincent Sherman.
But the studio put the script for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on a shelf with a note that read, “Awaiting John Huston.”
After he completed his service (he was ultimately promoted to major and won the Legion of Merit award for making films “under perilous battle conditions”) he returned to the Treasure project.
Huston wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Set in Mexico in the early 1920s, three destitute Americans search for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains. Their problems begin when they find a huge cache of gold. To pull the gold out of the earth, they must fight the harsh elements and put in long days of exhausting work. They must steer clear of bandits who would kill them for the shoes on their feet, and the other prospectors who might want to hone in on their find.
They must also fight the voice in their heads that whisper that all the gold is better than a third of the gold.
Bogart plays Fred Dobbs, the most cynical of the three, the one who falls victim to a paranoia that ultimately drives him to a cold-blooded murder that his addled brain rationalizes as self-defense.
Tim Holt plays Curtin, the most optimistic and naïve of the trio, one who believes the three of them will emerge intact with all their gold.
And Huston’s father Walter Huston plays Howard, the grizzled old veteran who’s been on treasure hunts before and knows how this will end.
“I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he tells Curtin and Dobbs before their expedition begins.
It’s a fascinating and gritty film. Curtin, Dobbs, and Howard are covered from head to toe in grime for days on end. The mistrust grows as they each hide their share of “the goods” from one another each night. They agree to shoot an interloper who wants a share of the goods, but bandits take care of him first.
When Howard is separated from Curtin and Dobbs, Dobbs decides that he and Curtin should split Howard’s share. When Curtin refuses, Dobbs realizes that he can keep all the gold if he kills Curtin. In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Dobbs and Curtin play a days-long game of chicken in which the first man to fall asleep will be killed by the other.
The Bogart from Casablanca is unrecognizable here; Dobbs is dirty, a thick beard that only grows as the months go by. He looks old, haggard, and you can see the crazy in his eyes.
Dobbs believes he has killed Curtin (he’s wrong; Curtin is merely wounded) and has all the gold to himself. But he still has to get it out of the mountains, and the effort of moving all the gold is too much for him.
Exhausted and nearly dead of thirst, he stumbles into a small river. As he washes his face and drinks, he sees the silhouette of a man with a gold sombrero in the water.
It is the bandit he nearly killed, and just as Dobbs killed Curtin for gold, the bandit kills Dobbs for his shoes, burros, and furs.
Curtin and Howard search for Dobbs and their gold in a wicked sandstorm. When they finally find Dobbs, they realize that their gold is blowing all around them in the storm. The bandits mistook it for sand (believing Dobbs was going to use it to inflate the weight of his furs when selling them) and dumped the bags onto the ground.
All their toil and sweat, blowing in the wind.
But unlike Dobbs, at least they got out with their lives.
In the final moments, they laugh maniacally at the cruel cosmic joke the universe has played on them.
Huston filmed outside Mexico City, one of the first Hollywood films shot on location. Huston liked adventure, travel, and most of all liked being far enough away from the studio heads that they couldn’t meddle with his picture.
Betty Bogart came along for the entirety of the months-long shoot, along with Huston’s new young wife Evelyn Keyes. Huston had never liked Bogart’s wife Mayo—he thought she was a scold and she’d interrupted the filming of Falcon with her antics.
So what did Huston think of his friend’s new young wife?
“[Bogart’s life was] improved by Betty’s presence. Oh, boy, was she good for him! Open and hearty and direct. With humor—and a kind of bravura quality. Insulting and tropical. I just loved her from the word go.”1
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a triumph for Bogart and the younger and elder Huston. It was not a huge box office success—it was considered too grim at the time, with no women, and no love story—but it has grown in stature over the years and is now considered a classic. It’s number 38 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American films.
The Hustons picked up three Academy Awards for the film—John won for both screenwriting and direction, and Walter won for Best Supporting Actor.
For Bogart and Huston, it was only the beginning of their legendary collaboration.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. John Huston: Courage and Art. 2011.
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