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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Article published on 7 March 2007
last modification on 14 April 2015

by ps

Film 2.04’02" Black and White

Cast: Humphrey Bogart ... Fred C. Dobbs

Walter Huston ... Howard

Tim Holt ... Bob Curtin

Bruce Bennett ... James Cody

Barton MacLane ... Pat McCormick

Alfonso Bedoya ... Gold Hat

Arturo Soto Rangel ... El Presidente (as A. Soto Rangel)

Manuel Dondé ... El Jefe

José Torvay ... Pablo

Margarito Luna ... Pancho

Directed by John Huston

The man known as B. Traven was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 5th, 1890 to Swedish parents. He spent his youth in Germany, where he began writing anarchist literature under the assumed name of Ret Marut, and published an underground anarchist magazine, Der Ziegelbrenner, (The Brick Burner) which appeared between 1917 and 1922.

Traven was forced to flee Germany under the threat of a death sentence issued by the post-World War freikorps of Bavaria. He disappeared for a time only to reappear in a British prison (crime unknown).

After vanishing from London, a man calling himself B. Traven, began sending manuscripts in German to Das Buchengild, a German publisher.

Traven is an anarchist, passionately on the side of the ordinary man for whom capitalism and bureaucracy (government, church) make decent life impossible. Traven wrote about serious issues of social justice, cruelty, and greed while employing a taut, suspenseful style. His anarchism is a central theme throughout his writing, illustrating the victimisation of individual freedom by the crushing power of the State.

His early works dealt with tramps either looking for work or having found it temporarily, and in this process being caught in a worldwide exploitative system. Traven’s novels have been translated into more than 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and they are required reading in Mexican schools.

Shortly after the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz, Traven settled into a small house, El Parque Cachu, outside Acapulco, Mexico where he lived for twenty-five years. Traven’s second novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was written during his early years in Mexico.

The bitter fable is set in Mexico. Three down-and-out Americans, Fred C. Dobbs, old Howard, and young Curtin, find gold dust from the mountain. They carry it down but during the journey these more or less decent human beings are transformed into jackals by greed and machismo. Dobbs escapes with all the gold but is ambushed by thieves and killed. The thieves, believing that Dobbs was carrying only sand with him, let the gold dust blow away.

"I know what gold does to men’s souls." "Dobbs had nothing. It may safely be said that he had less than nothing, for he was not even adequately or completely clothed, and clothing, to those in need, is a modest start toward capital." (from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, 1927)

First published in Germany in the 1930’s, it rapidly gained worldwide recognition and attention, and though his books had been published in many other languages, none had ever appeared in either England or the United States. (In 1934, both The Death Ship: The Story of an American Sailor, his first novel, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were finally published in the United States.)

Dobbs is a down-at-the-heels American looking for work in the Mexican oil fields. He and Curtin, another roustabout, have idle dreams of getting rich quick, but it’s not until they join up with the aged gold prospector Howard that they actually head into the Sierra Madre mountain range to find their fortune.

It is Howard who enunciates Traven’s political message and forecasts the plot of the tale :

"[G]old is a very devilish sort of thing, believe me, boys. In the first place, it changes your character entirely. When you have it your soul is no longer the same as it was before. No getting away from that. You may have so much piled up that you can’t carry it away; but, bet your blessed paradise, the more you have, the more you want to add, to make it just that much more. Like sitting at roulette. Just one more turn. So it goes on and on and on. You cease to distinguish between right and wrong. You can no longer see clearly what is good and what is bad. You lose your judgment. That’s what it is".

Perhaps this too argues for Traven’s Germanic origins, for sure enough, they do find gold, and within short order the men are acting like creatures out of the Brothers Grimm or the Ring of the Nibelungen, with predictably horrific and tragic results.

Traven’s point here is that it is not gold (or materialism generally) that makes men act like animals; filthy lucre is merely one more thing to fight over; but food, land, mates, beliefs, skin color, language, etc., serve equally well to make men lose their judgment. The awesome power which Traven confers upon gold, to corrupt the human soul, and the harkening back to ancient myth give the novel a quality of timelessness. Read simply as a meditation on greed, it’s hard to see how Traven’s core message could ever be out of date. There’s a whole lot of Dobbs in all of us; let’s try to avoid his fate, eh?

Christie Books