I won’t hesitate to call John Huston one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived. Huston was one of those multitalented filmmakers who had a hand in making several movies successes. He wrote and directed “The Maltese Falcon”, one of the movies that gave birth to the film-noir genre. He played the antagonist in “Chinatown” and created one of the most chilling performances of that time. And in 1948, he wrote and directed “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, a movie that somewhat re-defined the “Western” and is today one of my favorite movies ever.
The film opens with an American bum in Mexico named Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, a regular in Huston’s films), trying to find a little extra cash. He begs from a richer white man (played by Huston) and gets enough pesos to buy a drink, a haircut, and a lottery ticket. He runs into another white man down on his luck named Curtin (Tim Holt), and the two men run into each other again as they find a job working on a derrick owned by an untrustworthy employer. When they realize they will not be paid for their work, they beat up the employer in a bar and take the money that is rightfully theirs. (Remember this scene later.)
Along this way, they stop at a cheap hotel and run into an old man telling stories. The man is Howard (Walter Huston—John’s father), who tells about his past adventures of searching for gold in California. “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he says, admitting that there’s a reason why a prospector like him ended up in a cheap hotel. Prompted by this, Dobbs and Curtin decide to try gold digging and ask Howard for help. When they realize they have no money for supplies, a boy suddenly approaches Dobbs and tells him he won the lottery. The men get excited, and Dobbs is more than happy to share with the other two men his earnings. (Remember this scene, too.)
So they board a train to the Sierra Madre mountains in hopes of prospecting gold. Their train is suddenly attacked by bandits (remember them, too), but the three men make it safely to the mountains before finally finding gold after a search of several days. In what feels like a day but would have probably taken them a few months to create, the three men have created a way of getting fresh water as well as a cave to mine gold in.
And several events happen after this that progressively change the way the men think. Dobbs gets trapped in the cave, and Curtin (after almost leaving him for dead) goes in after him and rescues him. “I owe my life to you, partner,” Dobbs tells him. (Yeah, remember this, too.) Later on, the three men have arguments about how to divide up the gold. Soon after, Dobbs and Curtin develop paranoia about whether or not the other is out at night looking for the others’ gold. After this, Dobbs becomes worse off, muttering to himself and almost shooting Curtin for accidentally going in to where Dobbs’ gold was hidden.
One day, as Curtin has to go into town for more supplies, he meets another white man named Cody (Bruce Bennett). Cody eventually attempts to join the three men on their prospecting, but a suspicious Dobbs and an approaching group of bandits (the same group as before) prevents him from actually mining with them. In a suspenseful scene where Dobbs hides with his guns and shouts to the Mexican bandits to get away from their property, the leader shouts the immortal line: “We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” And the four white men drive the bandits away, though Cody is shot and killed in the process. Through a series of proceeding events, the three men soon finish mining, set off with their gold, and Howard is separated from the other two men to tend to a nearby village.
This, however, leads to Dobbs’ downfall. His growing paranoia drives him to shoot Curtin one night, though Curtin is not killed and thus drags himself to the village and tells Howard what happened. Dobbs, now growing pretty much insane, tries taking the gold and the donkeys carrying it back all by himself, but he is approached by the bandits again and subsequently beheaded. The bandits take his donkeys into the town, pouring all the gold (which is just sand in their eyes) into the windy desert. In the town, they are caught as the same bandits at the train robbery a year before, and they are arrested and shot.
Curtin and Howard find out Dobbs is dead but that their goods are safe in the town. However, when they can’t find their bags of gold, they go out into the desert to discover a windstorm. And the men can do nothing but just laugh at their situation, then sit down and talk about what’s next.
CURTIN: You know, the worst ain’t so bad when it finally happens—not half as bad as you think it’ll be before it’s happened. I’m no worse off than I was in Tampico. Only lost a couple hundred bucks when you come right down to it. Not very much compared to what Dobbs-y lost…
And as the two men bid farewell and part ways, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” feels very satisfying… even though it shouldn’t be, because these men just lost all their gold! Wasn’t that the whole point of their expedition? Maybe that was part of it, but maybe the three men (well, at least Curtin and Howard) realized in the end that there was more to life than gold, or wealth of any kind. Maybe their friendship transcends it all.
These few lines of dialogue Curtin has at the end really represent the movie’s theme to me. These men wanted to do good, and they probably didn’t really want to hurt each other, but a hunger for the gold drove them—or at least Dobbs—to selfish ambition. Even after he acknowledged gratitude to Curtin for saving his life, and even after wanting to share his lottery winnings with the others, there was still a desire in him to get what he thought was rightfully his: a desire that we saw in the beginning of the film that drove him to beat his employer.
Jesus talks about this as he tells his disciples about the sacrifice of living for Him. In Mark 8:36, he says: “‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’” In this film, Dobbs was guilty of just that: he wanted the things of this world so much that he sacrificed his own soul, and he did in many ways, even being killed. I pray that as you and I may struggle with selfish ambition on a daily basis, that we might look instead to the cross and realize that the things of this world are temporary, but His Word will last forever.