The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Writer(s): John Huston
Director: John Huston
Production Co.(s): Warner Bros. - First National Picture
Adapted from: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Novel) by B. Traven (© 1927)
The Story on the Screen
When we first meet Fred C. Dobbs, the main character of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he is down on his luck in the Mexican town of Tampico, circa 1925. His poor-luck circumstances are illustrated pointedly at the outset by the opening scene of the film, in which he tears up a national lottery ticket that has failed to pay off with a prize. And although the failure leaves him stuck in what appears to be an ongoing state of poverty, he is bitterly determined to succeed against what he deems to be his unfair lot in life (a foreshadowing of events) and uses part of a peso that he panhandles from a fellow American to buy another chance in the next lottery.
The tide of his luck seems to turn slightly for the better when he meets two other Americans: Bob Curtin, a penniless drifter who is stuck in Tampico like he is, and a man named McCormick, who offers him (and Curtin, separately) a job on a construction project. But when McCormick disappears at the end of the project without paying for their back-breaking labor, Dobbs and Curtin are left nearly penniless again and are forced to spend the night at a cheap hotel where they encounter Howard, an old prospector who regales them with tales of mining for gold all over the world, of making and losing riches, and of the trouble that riches can bring.
The main character, Fred C. Dobbs, is bitterly determined to succeed against what he deems to be his unfair lot in life.
Days later, while resting in a park, Dobbs and Curtin spy McCormick and confront him about their pay—engaging him in a bar fight in which they beat him up and take from his wallet only the money they are owed... leaving the remainder as evidence of their honesty and restraint. With their recovered pay in hand, they seek out Howard to propose the idea of a joint venture exploring for gold, to end their poverty for good. And just when it seems that the venture will be snuffed out before it starts, for lack of funds, news arrives that Dobbs' latest attempt at winning the lottery has paid off... at least enough to stake the search for the gold.
When the chance appears to partner with an old prospector and dig for gold, Dobbs and a friend dive in.
Thus begins Dobbs' quest to make his fortune mining for gold. And although the quest is fraught with problems at every juncture—from the fending off of a train robbery attempt by bandits to the arduous search to find an ore deposit worth mining, and from the the digging of the mine and its partial collapse to the appearance of an unwelcome interloper named Cody and a second encounter with the bandits who attempted to rob the train—the trio succeed in surviving and extracting from the mountain enough gold-bearing sand to satisfy their desire for wealth (at least for the time being). So they load up their burros with bags of the sand hidden under animal pelts and head to the town of Durango to cash in.
The trio succeed in extracting a wealth of gold. And that's when the real trouble starts.
The stresses of the expedition, however, take their toll on the unity of their mission and the mental state of the miners, especially Dobbs, who grows more selfishly paranoid and suspicious of the others with each passing day. And when, on their trek to Durango, Howard is called away by Indians to help heal a boy who has fallen into a river, Dobbs concocts a scheme to steal Howard's share—a scheme that Curtin opposes, which only serves to convince Dobbs that Curtin and Howard are working together against him... or that Curtin has plans to kill him and take all the riches for himself.
Behind the Scenes
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre can be said, in a broad sense, to illustrate the amplifying effect that the promise of riches has on the moral nature of men (and people in general).
The theme of the story expresses an indictment of its main character.
But the theme of the story is not contained in any statement regarding the effects of the promise of wealth on one's intrinsic nature or the perils of subjecting oneself to temptation. It lies, instead, in the punishing indictment of its main character, Dobbs, for behavior that the storytellers appear to consider morally repulsive—that is, the selfish pursuit of riches at all costs, even those detrimental to others who deserve to be treated fairly. The issue, then, may be stated generally as "gaining riches selfishly at all costs, including those detrimental to others" and the proposition can be fashioned as:
- One should not attempt to gain riches selfishly at all costs, including those detrimental to others, because success in the attempt will harm those who deserve not to be harmed and will lead to his own destruction.
For a short time, Curtin is able to curb Dobbs' plans to abscond with all of the gold-laden dust, but eventually Dobbs gains the upper hand and shoots Curtin in the dark of night, leaving him for dead on the trail. But the act of doing so backfires, because not only does Curtin survive and escape, Dobbs is left all alone and vulnerable to attack when he encounters the bandits again on his way to Durango.
In the end, Dobbs fails in his selfish endeavor, and we-the-audience are pleased.
In the end, the bandits kill Dobbs, steal the burros and animal hides, and scatter the sand, not recognizing its value. And they themselves are captured and killed by Federales in a Mexican village where they try to sell the burros and hides. By the time that Howard and his Indian friends arrive in the village, with an injured Curtin in tow, it is too late. Dobbs is dead, and the gold-laden sand is scattered across the desert by a strong northern wind... transported back to the mountain from which it came.
In this case, then, the main character fails in his attempt to gain riches selfishly and at all costs, without regard for others, and thanks to his motivations and methods of making the attempt, we-the-audience are pleased by his failure. Consequently, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stands as a classic example of a fail/pleased story.
And although Curtin and Howard are not destroyed or excessively harmed in the process of Dobbs' attempt, its consequences—including the death of Cody while attempting to help defend the trio from the bandits—render the mood of the ending decidedly less than happy.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).