“These are the men who tried to tap the treasure of the Sierra Madre! Men with an oath on their lips, and muscles in their arms! But men with greed in their hearts! Ready to break their backs, and sell their very souls for gold!” —trailer, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
An awful lot of the American ideal of masculinity comes from Westerns. The myth of the rugged, lawless American West took hold of the national imagination at the turn of the 20th century in both print and film, with 1903’s silent short “The Great Train Robbery” often considered the first blockbuster movie. The classic feature films that followed, developing and cycling through subgenres, subversions, and revivals from the 1900s through the 1960s, established a language for the baseline Western. It was based around stoic determination, confident capability, and a black-and-white moral code. It was also specifically based around men—particularly men with guns, and no compunctions about using them to shut down trouble. Western heroes like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood, Montgomery Cliff, and many more were allowed to be frightened if they were up against unconceivable odds, but they weren’t allowed to back down. Courage under fire, good aim, and plenty of emotional self-control (or no visible emotions at all) were held up as the basic components of a Western hero.
Writer-director John Huston was always interested in heroism, but not noticeably engaged by traditional masculinity or the politics of macho. The male heroes in his best-known films are often sweaty and shaky, either helplessly pursuing an obsession, or struggling to survive and possibly accomplish a few key goals in the shadow of stronger wills. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon doggedly runs down a mystery, but only seems in real control of his situation once, when he’s getting a woman locked up rather than falling for her wiles. Charlie in The African Queen gets bullied by a stern lady missionary into taking one terrifying risk after another against his will. Frank McCloud in Key Largo also gets bullied relentlessly, his masculinity challenged at gunpoint to the point where he can only reclaim control by manipulating his tormentor’s emotions—a film role more traditionally offered to female characters.
It’s no coincidence that all three of these iconic roles are played by Humphrey Bogart, who enjoyed a lengthy partnership with Huston. Bogie became an American icon of male cool via films like The Petrified Forest and Casablanca, but he was a thin and weatherbeaten actor, without the deep-chested bulk of a traditional Western protagonist. In his most confident and contemptuous roles, he takes control of situations with a swagger, a sneer, or a quiet insinuation. He played his most heroic roles as cocky, self-assured men who knew they were better-informed, or at least better-armed, than the yahoos around them. Huston recognized him as an actor who could play thinkers more than brawlers, and he consistently gave him roles where he showed his toughness more through dogged determination than via strong arms and straight shooting.
In their richest screen partnership, 1948’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Bogart doesn’t even get to play the hero. He starts off as apparent protagonist Fred Dobbs, an American on the bum in Tampico, Mexico, where he obsequiously scrounges off other white men with the line, “Hey mister, would you stake a fellow American to a meal?” (Not “Pardon me, but could you help out a fellow American who’s down on his luck?” as the Bugs Bunny short “Eight-Ball Bunny” parodied it in a running gag.) But it’s an early mark of his self-serving duplicity, and the trouble to come, that when one white-suited stranger (played by John Huston himself) gives Dobbs a series of handouts, he instantly blows the money on cigarettes, a haircut and shave, a brothel visit, and other non-essentials. A few hours later, he’s begging again. And months later, when he and two new acquaintances have struck gold and have enough money to start their lives over, Dobbs shows no more forethought or planning on the large scale than he did on the small scale. While his partners plan to settle down and build themselves lives, Fred can’t think past what it would be like to walk into a restaurant, order everything on the menu, and send half of it back just to prove he’s a big shot. Pressed for what he might do after that, he gets belligerent. He isn’t the planning type. Nor is he honest, loyal, brave, taciturn, a skilled shooter, or any of the other things that make a real man in a Western.
Instead, Huston—working from a novel by reclusive, mysterious author B. Traven—subverts the whole set of Western archetypes. Shooting on location in Mexico in an era when location shoots were vanishingly rare, he made his Western-style film somewhere other than the American West. His Indians are idealized, quiet family types who live in primitive luxury. He has horseback chases, shootouts, a train robbery, sweeping vistas, rough justice, a bar-room brawl, and other hallmarks of the genre. But his morality isn’t black and white; none of his characters are idealized saints or sinners playing out broad fables meant to help American mythologize itself. They’re all desperate men making desperate choices.
And his model of superior manliness for the film isn’t a strong-and-silent type in the prime of life: It’s his own father, Walter Huston, who was in his early 60s at the time, and looking older with a squint, a grizzled white beard, and his false teeth pulled out. Walter won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Howard, a cantankerous old coot who’s just as down on his luck as Dobbs and a third American they run across, game-but-naïve Bob Curtain (Tim Holt). But even though Howard is broke, living in a dirt-cheap, rat-infested flophouse, and getting by on tales of former glory, he turns out to be more of a man than Dobbs and Holt put together.
Treasure Of The Sierra Madre gets held up as a classic tale about greed, and about how paranoia, cowardice, and self-justification can rot friendships when money is involved. It’s become a highly influential story, repeatedly remade or subtly invoked in a variety of eras and settings, not to mention misquoted extensively thanks to a bandit leader shouting the memorable line, “We don’t need badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” When it isn’t being evoked for humor value, or simple recognition, it’s most often used as a touchstone for stories about friendships that disintegrate as soon as the friends involved get a little success, in settings as widely spaced as heist movies like Rififi and the found-footage superhero film Chronicle.
But it’s also a classic tale about survival, and about all the acquired skills that turn out to be more important than youth, physical strength, or rigorous repression of emotion. When Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard set out together, the younger men are literally expecting they’ll have to carry the older one, and they aim to use him for his knowledge, then move on. Instead, he ends up virtually carrying them throughout the second half of the film. At every turn, he comes up with some hard-accumulated knowledge that eases their way, saves them time, or saves their lives. He recognizes fools’ gold as a waste of effort, and sees the signs of real gold when the other two don’t. He speaks Spanish, can translate for the locals, and knows the area’s customs. He needs less water than the other two men, and is practiced enough to climb the rocky terrain faster and easier. His Boy Scout training lets him save the life of a half-drowned Indian child. Whenever circumstances shift, Howard always understands what’s going on faster than the other men do, and takes the right path to fix things, if they can be fixed.
More importantly, he’s wary and watchful. As soon as he’s introduced, he can be seen scanning the faces of the men around him, checking to see how they interact, and judging his play. When the three men travel further into the gold-bearing hinterlands on a train, and bandits attack, Huston pushes the camera close on Dobbs, gunning down the attackers in a fit of glee, and bragging about his kills, but the camera also catches Howard, choosing his targets and biding his time during the shootout, then not participating in the boast-off afterward. When the three men find gold and start the rigorous, many-month process of mining and processing it, and Dobbs starts getting squirrelly about how and when the three-way split should take place, Howard is easygoing about the options—and again, can be seen carefully watching and gauging Dobbs. He has an idea what’s coming, and knows exactly how to play it.
But when bandits attack the camp, Huston makes sure to observe again how Howard carefully watches for an opening, and kills the men he aims at, while Dobbs and Curtain bang away. Howard’s crack shot at the beginning of the confrontation, blasting the pocketwatch out of the hand of a double-dealing bandit, comes at the perfect time to end round one of the bandits’ lies, and move them into a new phase of negotiations. Howard is a fast-talking, giddy, snappish old coot, but he’s still a great shot who knows when to bring the guns to bear.
And above all, Howard is cavalier and philosophical when it matters, and calmly determined when he has to be. He’s the one who brings up the movie’s themes in dialogue, letting the younger men know how wealth can make people crazy, and laying down the foreshadowing about how Dobbs will come apart before long. From the beginning, Howard lets them know that he values his life more than any money, suggesting in his careful way that if they want to rob him, they don’t have to murder him to do it. He’s determined to make a good teammate, even if he’s on a bad team. When an interloper named Cody (Bruce Bennett, looking much more like a traditional Alan Ladd-type Western hero than anyone else in the film) forces his way into their mining camp and tries to blackmail them into sharing their find, Howard is equally willing to let him in, or bump him off, depending on what the others vote. Where Dobbs demands Cody’s death, then squeamishly suggests they should draw straws to see who should have to act on his determination, Howard takes a deep, sad breath and reluctantly heads out to do his duty by his partners. He’s loyal, even to people who don’t deserve his loyalty.
It’s significant that Dobbs and Curtain don’t finally fall out until Howard is forced away from the party. It isn’t just their gold-mining partnership that falls apart: After a day on the trail without Howard’s intervention and wisdom, the other two men are somehow filthier, sweatier, and more exhausted than usual. Even after 10 months on the job, they still haven’t picked up enough trail knowledge to manage their burros or themselves. That’s what marks Howard as the closest thing Treasure Of The Sierra Madre has to a traditional Western hero: He has a lifetime of acquired skill, and he makes things look easy, no matter how hard they are for others.
Huston was a taciturn man himself, at least about his work. He used his father in his films before Sierra Madre—Walter has a cameo as the dying captain who delivers the black-bird statue in The Maltese Falcon, and as a bartender in 1942’s In This Our Life. But about casting him as the smartest, cleverest, most capable, and most upstanding character in Sierra Madre—the one that laughs off the tragedy at the film’s end, and rides off to his own happy ending—Huston didn’t say much, apart from the simple statement that he realized during the writing that his “old man” would be good for the role.
For his part, Walter Huston was initially reluctant to take the part, which required him to look frowsy and old without his false teeth, and ridiculous in his hyper capering. But he was eventually persuaded to buy in, and the film won him his only Oscar, after a long career in the business, and three other nominations, two for leading roles. In his short-and-sweet acceptance speech, he joked that he’d earned the credit because he’d ordered his kid, “If you ever become a director or a writer, please find a good part for your old man.” And he left it at that.
There’s probably plenty more either of them could have said, about what working together on an endeavor this significant meant for a family so dependent on the ups and downs of Hollywood. Or what it meant for either of them in Huston’s later years, once the film, which was something of a box-office flop, begin to grow in reputation, and be regarded as one of his finest works in a career packed with fine movies. But if Walter was touched that his son cast him as a bastion of alternative masculinity in a genre that didn’t often allow for such flexibility, and put him in a role where he got to show off his superior capabilities and knowledge to the troublesome younger pups of the world, he apparently didn’t say a great deal about it. In his era, as in the genre’s classic pictures, men didn’t talk much about their feelings.
Sierra Madre offered a different take on macho, one based more on constant expressive chatter than withholding, and on carefully observing the world before taking any steps to change it. But nearly 60 years later, that model still looks subversive and daring. The film has endured far longer than most of the other Westerns and neo-Westerns cranked out during its era. But it still feels like it’s battling the same ideals of machismo now that it did back then. It may always look like an underdog in the fight to establish different ways of successfully being a manly hero. But like Howard himself, the film is in the fight for the long haul, in its own quiet, enduring way.
Genevieve and Keith continue the conversation over in the Forum, where they talk about Sierra Madre’s mysterious author, perfect pacing, and enduring power. And on Thursday, Emma Myers wraps up with a look at Humphrey Bogart’s strange screen afterlife in films like Play It Again, Sam.