Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The (1948): Making of Huston-Bogart Classic

Narrative Structure:

In 1925, in the Mexican town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin, two broke American drifters, are recruited by labor contractor Pat McCormick as roughnecks to help construct oil rigs for $8 a day. When the project is completed, McCormick skips out without paying the men.

The vagrants encounter an old man, Howard, in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner talks to them about gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a bar fight, collect their back wages.

When Dobbs hits a small jackpot in the lottery, he, Curtin and Howard have enough money to buy the supplies needed to go prospecting.

Departing Tampico by train, the three repulse a bandit attack led by “Gold Hat.” North of Durango, they head into the remote Sierra Madre mountains. Howard, the hardiest and most knowledgeable of the three, spots gold that the others had passed by.

The men toil under harsh conditions and amass fortune in placer gold. But as the gold piles up, Dobbs becomes increasingly distrustful of the other two. The men agree to divide the gold dust immediately and hide their shares.

Curtin, while on a resupply trip to Durango, is spotted making purchases by Texan named Cody. Cody secretly follows Curtin back to the encampment. When he confronts the three men, they lie about their doings, but he is not fooled. He proposes to join their outfit and share in future takings. Howard, Curtin and Dobbs talk it over and vote to kill him.

As they announce their verdict, pistols in hand, Gold Hat and his bandits arrive. They claim to be Federales. After a tense parley, a gunfight ensues, and Cody is killed. A genuine troop of Federales suddenly appears and pursues Gold Hat and gang. The  prospectors examine Cody’s personal effects, and a letter from loving wife reveals that he was trying to provide for his family.

Howard is asked to assist local villagers with seriously ill  boy. When the boy recovers, the next day, the villagers insist that Howard return with them to be honored. Howard leaves his goods with Dobbs and Curtin, promising to meet them later.

Dobbs and Curtin constantly argue, until one night Dobbs shoots Curtin and takes all the gold. However, Curtin is not dead; he manages to crawl away and hide during the night.

Finding Curtin gone, Dobbs flees, but he is ambushed at a waterhole by Gold Hat and his men. They first toy with him, then kill him. The bandits mistake the bags of gold dust for sand and dump the treasure, taking only the burros and supplies. The gold is scattered by the strong wind. Meanwhile, Curtin is discovered by indios and taken to Howard’s village, where he recovers.

Gold Hat’s gang tries to sell the stolen burros in town, but a child recognizes the brands on them (and Dobbs’ clothes, which the bandits are wearing) and reports to the authorities. The bandits are captured and executed by the Federales.

Howard and Curtin return to Durango in dust storm and reclaim their pack animals, only to find the empty bags. At first shaken by the loss, first Howard, then Curtin, grasp the irony, and burst into laughter. Howard decides to return to the village to accept an offer of permanent home and doctor position, while Curtin sells their recovered property to return to the US, to seek out Cody’s widow. As Curtin leaves, the camera pans down to a cactus, and next to it there’s another empty bag.

Cast
Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs
Walter Huston as Howard
Tim Holt as Bob Curtin
Bruce Bennett as James Cody
Barton MacLane as Pat McCormick
Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat
Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente
Manuel Dondé as El Jefe
José Torvay as Pablo
Margarito Luna as Pancho
Robert Blake as Mexican boy selling lottery tickets (uncredited)
John Huston as American in Tampico in white suit (uncredited)
Jack Holt as a Flophouse Bum (uncredited)
Julian Rivero as the Barber (uncredited)
Jay Silverheels as the Indian Guide at Pier (uncredited)
Pat Flaherty as the Bar Patron (uncredited)
Clifton Young as another Flophouse Bum (uncredited)

Director Huston first read the novel by B. Traven in 1935 and had always thought it would make great movie with his father in the main role. Based on a 19th-century ballad by a German poet, Traven’s book reminded Huston of his adventures in the Mexican cavalry. After smashing success with his directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon, Huston started to work on the project. The studio had George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and John Garfield for the three leads, but then WWII intervened.

Vincent Sherman was set to direct a version of the story during the War years until his script fell foul of the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code for being derogatory towards Mexicans.

Casting

By the time Huston came back from making documentaries for the war effort, Bogart had become Warner’s biggest star. When Bogart first learned that Huston might be making a film of the Traven novel, he started badgering for a part. Bogart was given the role of Fred C. Dobbs. Prior to filming, Bogart encountered a critic while leaving New York nightclub. “Wait till you see me in my next picture,” he said, “I play the worst shit you ever saw.”

Traven initially disagreed with Huston’s casting of his father, Walter Huston, as Howard. He had preferred Lewis Stone but eventually agreed with Huston. Walter Huston also questioned his son’s choice, still seeing himself as leading man, and not keen on being cast in supporting role. Huston convinced him and later rated his father’s performance as the finest piece of acting in any of his films.

On seeing the depth of Walter Huston’s performance, Bogart famously said, “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.”

Huston originally wanted to cast Ronald Reagan as James Cody. Jack L. Warner objected, and Bruce Bennett was cast in the role. Some notable uncredited actors appear in the film. In an opening cameo, director Huston is pestered for money by Bogart’s character, directed by Bogart. Actor Robert Blake also appears as a young boy selling lottery tickets.

A photo included in the documentary in the DVD release shows Ann Sheridan in streetwalker costume, with Bogart and Huston on the set. Many sources credit Sheridan for a part. Co-star Tim Holt’s father, Jack Holt, star of silent and early sound Westerns and actioners, makes one-line appearance at the beginning, as one of the men down on their luck.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the first Hollywood films to be filmed on location outside the US (in the state of Durango and street scenes in Tampico, Mexico), though many scenes were shot in the studio and elsewhere in the US. The shoot took five and a half months.

The film’s first scene with Bogart and Holt was the first to be shot. The opening scenes, filmed in longshot on the Plaza de la Libertad in Tampico, show contemporary (i.e. of the 1940s) cars and buses, even though the story opens in 1925, evidenced by the lottery number’s poster.

Just as Huston was starting to shoot scenes in Tampico, Mexico, the production was shut down by the local government. The cast and crew were at a complete loss, since the residents and government of Tampico had been generous. It turns out that a local newspaper printed false story that accused the filmmakers of making a film that’s unflattering to Mexico.

Huston found out why the newspaper skewered him and his production. When you wanted to do anything in Tampico, it was customary to slide money to the editor of the newspaper, which the crew failed to do. Two of Huston’s associates, Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, went to bat for the director with the President of Mexico. The libelous accusations were dropped, and a few weeks later, the newspaper editor was caught in flagrante and shot dead by a jealous husband.

Most of the Mexican extras were paid 10 pesos a day, the equivalent of $2, a considerable amount for impoverished region at the time.

Walter Huston had to speak fluent Spanish, a language he did not know off camera. John Huston hired a Mexican to record the lines and then the elder Huston memorized them so well that many assumed he knew the language like a native. As with most of the Mexican actors selected from the local population, Alfonso Bedoya’s heavily accented pronunciation of English proved to be a bit of a problem. Example: “horseback” came out as “whore’s back”. Bogart only knew two Spanish words, “Dos Equis”, a Mexican beer.

The fight scene in the cantina took five days to shoot. During the shoot of the entire film, John Huston pulled pranks on Bennett, Bedoya (along with Bogart), and Bogart. While most of the film was shot in Mexico, Jack L. Warner had the unit return to Hollywood when the budget exceeded $3 million.

Though the daily rushes impressed Jack L. Warner, he went berserk with the weekly expenditures. After viewing one scene, Warner threw up his hands and shouted to Producer Henry Blanke, “Yeah, they’re looking for gold all right – mine!” During another screening, Warner watched Dobbs stumble along in the desert for water. Warner jumped up in the middle of the scene and shouted, “If that s.o.b. doesn’t find water soon I’ll go broke!”

John Huston and Blanke led him to believe that the film would be an easy picture to make and that they would be in and out of Mexico in a matter of weeks. Warner was notorious for not actually reading scripts and he assumed the film was a B-movie Western. As the full extent of Huston’s plans became apparent, Warner became quite angry. He was especially unhappy with the way the film ended, arguing that audiences wouldn’t accept it. Warner’s expectation was validated in that the initial box office take was unimpressive. Yet the film was a huge critical success and in its many re-releases, it more than earned back its original investment of $3 million.

Bogart, who was an avid yachtsman, was getting increasingly anxious about missing the Honolulu Race in which he usually participated. Despite assurances from the studio that his work would be finished by then, he started to annoy Huston about whether he would be done in time. Eventually, Huston had enough and grabbed Bogart by the nose and twisted hard. Bogart never again asked him when shooting was expected to be over.

The wind storm in the final scene was created by using jet engines borrowed from the Mexican Air Force.

Censorship and Edited Scenes

Huston’s original filmed depiction of Dobbs’ death was more graphic – as it was in the book – than the one that made it onto the screen. When Gold Hat strikes Dobbs with his machete, Dobbs is decapitated. Huston shot Dobbs’ (fake) head rolling into the waterhole (a quick shot of Gold Hat’s accomplices reacting to Dobbs’ rolling head remains in the film, and in the very next shot, the water is rippling where it rolled in).

The 1948 censors would not allow that, so Huston camouflaged the cut shot with a repeat shot of Gold Hat striking Dobbs. Warner publicity released a statement that Bogart was “disappointed the scene couldn’t be shown in all its graphic glory.” Bogart’s reaction was: “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”

John Huston’s adaptation of Traven’s novel was altered to meet Hays Code regulations, which severely limited profanity.

The original line from the novel was:

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and chinga tu madre!”
The dialogue as written for the film is:

Gold Hat: “We are Federales … you know, the mounted police.”
Dobbs: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?”
Gold Hat: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Gold Hat’s response as written by Huston – and delivered by Bedoya – has become famous, and is often misquoted as “We don’t need no stinking badges!”

In 2005, the quote was chosen as No. 36 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.

The film offers an in-depth character study of the corrupting influence of greed, exploring the nature of avarice and its desolateness as an influence on the actions of the men. Though Dobbs’ character is flawed from the start, even he deteriorates in his pathetic desperation for gold–at any cost.

The film earned $2,746,000 domestically and $1,349,000 foreign.

At the 21st Oscar Awards, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre received four nominations, and won three awards for Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, and Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay for John Huston, the only Oscars he would claim. There has been controversy since the ceremony in 1949 because of the Academy’s choice in not nominating Humphrey Bogart for the Academy Award for Best Actor, a choice that has since been condemned by modern critics and Academy members. Bogart’s performance has been named the best of his career. Acclaimed British actor Daniel Day-Lewis said that his second Oscar-winning performance as vicious oil baron Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood was heavily inspired by Bogart’s portrayal of Fred C. Dobbs.

Remade but never duplicated, this darkly humorous morality tale represents John Huston at his finest. The Treasure of The Sierra Madre is one the best films ever made in Hollywood–John Huston and Humphrey Bogart’s magnum opus.