AFI 1998 # 30 Director: John Huston Screenplay: John Huston Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston
Short Take: This film is the Western for people that don't like Westerns, as its less a story of guns and the wilds of nature, but rather about how money and greed can show the true nature of a person. The rapport between the three main characters is pretty terrific, and the film does a superb job of laying out exactly what the plot arc is going to be for you in the first twenty minutes of the film. Drink Pairing: Tequila, or Water, but only out of a canvas bag
Favorite Line: DOBBS - "That's when I took him for human, not part goat."
Famous Line: "We don't need no badges." misquoted to "We don't need no stinking badges."
How Long Would the Movie Be If It Ended When the Title is Said: N/A
Dobbs (Bogart) is a down on his luck destitute in Tampico, Mexico. He's recruited to help build an oil rig by a man that ends up not paying him or the rest of the crew. During his time there he meets with Curtin (Holt). The two spend a night in a hostel type place, and meet a similarly broke old man Howard (Huston) who used to prospect gold, and tells them how things always start out well when there's no money, but as soon as the gold comes in, there starts to be trouble no matter how good of friends the were. After that the duo runs into the guy that owes them money, beat him up, since he keeps putting off paying them, and take what they're owed right then. They then get the idea to take their money to go gold prospecting, and find Howard to help them. The trio then sets out the adventure that will show the best and worst of their nature.
Long Take (Spoilers - duh): So if nothing else this movie gets my recommendation because it actually kept me engaged in watching the entire time, and I couldn't help but watch this and feel as though it likely influence Sam Shepard as he was writing True West. While theirs not the swapping of personalities that happens in Shepard's play, it does have a similar sense of descent into the worst part of people's nature, as it focuses on greed, and how it can change people.
The bulk of the film takes place up on the mountain where the trio are prospecting gold, and its set up so that it outlines the natures of each other their characters pretty early into their time up there. Once they set up camp and actually start having some gold, there's a scene where they have to decide whether they are going to keep all the gold together in one lump and divide it later, or if they're going to divide it up now and each has their own hiding spot. Howard essentially says that he has no horse in the race and will do whatever the two novices want, Curtin think the keep it all together and divide the money at the bank will be best, while Dobbs wants to divide it all up, so that one guy can't just run off with all the earnings. Dobbs gets his way as he's the gruffest of the bunch, and the others defer to him. This interaction though sets up how their characters will act for the remainder of the movie. Dobbs will be paranoid of the others trying to steal his share, Curtin will be rather trusting of everyone best intent, and Howard will just be happy as long as he has enough in the end to get him to the end of his life.
This characterization is pretty significant though because even just two scenes earlier, everyone is the best of buds, and before they started out on the adventure, Dobbs actually spotted Curtin some of the money to start up their venture, saying that it made no difference in the long run if they all got thousands from this venture. This earlier statement and action is in stark contrast to how he ends up acting though as soon as they start making money. This change though, is rather explicitly stated in the plot though before Dobbs and Curtin come into their startup money for prospecting. Howard says "Gold's a Devilish Thing," and the later continues talking about prospecting with partners, "As long as there's no find, the noble brotherhood will last, but when the piles begin to grow, that's when the trouble begins." So they movie itself rather explicitly states that once that people start to have money, that trouble will come a knocking. The entirety of Howard's monologue which is maybe 15 minutes into the film ends up being the dramatic premise of the film. So the story is about wealth, and how it corrupts people, but does it really need to be about gold? In short, no, but I'm posing a question to myself to not answer it more fully. So the gold in this story is a mainly a Mcguffin, which is an object usually that the protagonists are pursuing, but in the end it doesn't really matter to the story itself. One of the most famous of these is the Holy Grail out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The reason the the gold is a Mcguffin is because its only really in the script as a reason the the trio of the main characters to go out on their journey, much as the grail is the reason Indy goes out in Last Crusade. What the gold in Sierra Madre does is provides a reason for this group to go out to the middle of the desert, and for them to spend so much time together for their natures to get warped by the the prospect of wealth. Its important for this story that the object be something that bestows wealth though, and easy for them to carry, such as pearls, a hidden treasure, or a cave of gems, but otherwise the object itself isn't particularly important to the plot. So since the story isn't about the gold itself, it has to be about the characters and how they change throughout the film.
While the film itself mostly focuses on the trio, Dobbs is undoubtedly the main focus of the character development, as of the three he's really the only of the three that changes. He starts off begging for change, and isn't the nicest of guys (he picks out one man in particular to repeatedly beg from because he keeps giving him money), and then spends the entire film going from relatively amenable to his partner (see above about spotting money), to downright not trusting either of the trio to do anything because he thinks they're out to get his money, even though neither shows any sign that they're going to turn on him. Compared to Dobbs, Howard is downright laid back, and amenable to whatever the group thinks, and Curtin is mostly there to generally trust in the people around him.
There are two scenes I think says the most about these characters, the first is them saying how much money they want to make, and the second what they're going to do with money. Howard just wants $25,000, Curtin thinks that's plenty as its more than he ever expected, and Dobbs wants to make about $50,000. As for what they want to do with their funds, Howard wants to just have enough to live out his days, Curtin wants to start a peach orchard, and Dobbs just wants to buy something. Now what's important about these scenes is that they work to expose the intentions of the three characters, as well as what they represent in relation of how a man should act with money. Howard is contentment with what you have, Curtin is good humor and level headed planning, and Dobbs is greed to just get what a man wants immediately. These characterizations really matter in the end.
Curtin's shining moment is when the mine collapses on Dobbs pretty early into their prospecting, and goes to investigate. He ends up getting to the entrance, and hesitates for a second before running in to help Dobbs. The hesitation says a lot, as he seems to be weighing whether or not he's going to run in and save him, meaning that he's actually had to think about his morals for a moment and whether or not he could live with himself if he lets the man die.
Later in the film, Cody comes to their camp and asks to get in on the action, and then poses the trio with the options to kill him, let him report on them, or let him in on a cut of future gold. Curtin advocates for just letting the guy join, Howard has no opinion, and Dobbs wants to kill him, thus continuing the trend of how wealth has (or has not) changed them. This is then later even more exemplified when Cody is shot dead by some bandits, and both Howard and Curtin are choked up to discover he has a son and wife back in Texas, and Dobbs is essentially just glad that he's dead and they don't have to worry about him any further. Much later in the film Curtin and Howard decide they'll give 25% of their earning to Cody's widow, and Dobbbs decides not to. These decisions continue to show what compassionate characters the former two are, while how Dobbs is pretty self-centered.
All of the tension between the three because of Dobb's mistrust is essentially eradicated though once Curtin accidentally discover's Dobb's stash of gold, as Curtin was trying to kill a lizard that had slinked under the rock. Dobbs thinks the other was trying to steal the gold, but upon the reveal of the lizard, he trusts the other two much more, and they then wrap up their time on the mountain. This reprieve is all well and good, and sets up a sense of calm and solidarity in the group again, and this effectively lulls the audience into thinking that the movie will end all right once the trio gets to town. This lasts until Howard goes away with some villagers that need help with a dying child. At this point the monster of greed reappears and Dobbs convinces himself the others concocted a plan to kill him and take his money. He shoots Curtin, and then goes to sleep, and Curtin crawls away in the night and is taken back to the town Howard is at. Now the next morning is probably the best monologue in the film, as Dobbs is just mad going between how he should go check on the body or not. This bit has such a great sense of tension, as the audience knows Curtin is gone, while Dobbs goes back and forth almost a half dozen times before going to see the body is missing. What makes this standout is that you can see that Dobbs feels some sort of guilt for betraying his friend, but keeps rationalizing it away just to make himself feel better.
Now at the end of the film Dobbs ends up alone and murdered by bandits, and the gold is blown away, Curtin is going to take what little money they have left to visit Cody's widow and start working on an orchard, and Howard is going back to the village that now reveres him for saving the child. The film pretty explicitly puts these ends as the right endings for the just result for how each of these people comported themselves. Dobbs' greed lead to him alone from the only friends he had in the world, and rather desperate for help in the end. If he'd had Curtin and Howard with him, he'd undoubtedly would have been fine, and could have gone on to live a rather comfortable life, but because of greed and lack of trust, he found himself alone and his money unable to help him. Both Curtin and Howard's good natures however have ended up with them both well supported, as Howard immediately believes Curtain about Dobbs shooting him. Furthermore after loosing the gold, Curtin and Howard can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of losing what they worked for so long for, but immediately come up with a game plan for both of them. This conversation intentionally mirrors of the talk the trio had earlier about what to do with the gold. Howard continues to be content with what he has around him, Curtin Listens to Howard and comes up with a plan for the future. Dobbs not being able to participate in the conversation has a fairly poetic justice to it, because he had no plan that could be altered to a life without money, so it makes just as much sense for him to be dead.
This only really begins to touch on the great parts of this script's symbolism, as there's the character of Gold Hat that I didn't even touch on, who is in the best shot in the film.
Since it also bears talking about the cinematography is pretty solid, and the director did a great job of giving the audience lots of visual cues that help showcase what's important. For example the donkeys that the trio get are branded, and this and is emphasized a few times right as they're seen getting bought. This ends up being an important detail, and is easily remembered when it comes up almost an hour and a half later.
Also for more good script writing, the idea of how swift justice is carried out in Mexico is shown and referenced several times, as we hear or see bandits in front of firing squads several times. Then to build on this, it gets talked about how a convicted man dig his own grave are mentioned earlier in the script, and is then actually used much later, but it never feels like a plot point is being divulged.
Also also, I can't help but feel that Howard directly affected the writing of the old man character in The Wild Bunch, a Western from 1969 that was #80 on the list I'm working off of.
So this film is so far one of my favorites on the list and I can't help but recommend it. The script and acting are just great, and the character development is super. The one real gunfight in the film is also well handled and fun to watch..