Ten Great Lessons From “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

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Ten Great Lessons From “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”
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Hollywood’s purest gold is in glorious black and white:

Warner Brothers’ “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948).

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Directed by the inimitable John Huston.

Screenplay by John Huston and Robert Rossen from the novel by the mysterious B. Traven.

Starring the director’s father, storied stage and screen actor, Walter Huston, in his Oscar-winning role as the venerable prospector, Howard, the best supporting actor who ever stole a picture.

And Huston’s dear friend, leading man Humphrey Bogart, cast against type as, per Bogie himself, “the worst sh-t you ever saw,” Fred C. Dobbs.

Set and largely filmed in John Huston’s beloved Mexico, this unforgettable morality tale is rated 100% on “Rotten Tomatoes.”

Science teaches: when inter-rater reliability reaches 100% the conclusion can’t be wrong.

Or, as my father always said: “If ten people tell you you’re drunk, you’re drunk.”

More than a fable, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is a grand tour of the best and worst in human nature,

A timeless guide to the benefits and perils of friendship and partnership, love and life, castles and moats, business and investment.

Of “Treasure’s” many great lessons here are an even ten:

Spoiler alerts apply!

  1. "Don’t Take A Risk, Can’t Make A Gain." --- Walter Huston as "Howard"

We first meet wizened Howard---Walter Huston reluctantly shed his uppers to appear old beyond his 64 years---at the Oso Negro (Black Bear) flophouse, regaling his fellow down’n’outers with a neo-Marxist analysis of the lure of gold:

Gold derives its value from the backbreaking work---prospecting and mining---of production, not its ultimate utility.

For gold has little save dentistry and adornment.

Is Howard a wayward labor organizer?

A fellow-traveler?

Even a card-carrying Communist?

The answer is D, none of the above.

Howard is a “learning machine,” Warren Buffett/Charlie Munger fashion.

A mature man of deep vision and moral clarity, a natural philosopher who has compounded skills and wisdom over a well-traveled and closely examined life:

A venture capitalist who washed out, but isn’t washed up.

So when Howard warily seals the deal with brutish Dobbs and genial Bob Curtin—cowboy-star Tim Holt in the best performance of his career---he blesses their prospecting venture with the fundamental tenant of commercial life:

“Don’t Take A Risk, Can’t Make A Gain.”

  1. None Are Pure At Heart

Like any fable “Treasure” features heroes and villains.

And in verisimilitude villains may sometimes do right, heroes can go wrong, and everyone has their reasons.

Embittered Dobbs is so certain he will be exploited he is first to do so:

“Nobody puts one over on Fred C. Dobbs!”

Loathe to share and eager to steal, Dobbs can nonetheless “do the right thing:”

  • He generously tips the Mexican boy who sells him a winning lottery ticket---after previously cruelly dousing him with water in the first reel (“Our Gang” veteran Bobby Blake was fearful of Bogart until they warmed to each other on the set);
  • He helps Howard close the exhausted goldmine, a gesture without reward in this life and a favor for which he seeks no recompense;
  • He contributes the lion’s share of venture capital with a hearty laugh and handshake.

But note well Dobbs remains highly transactional: as he freely admits, without his added contribution the venture is sunk. Moreover Dobbs’ spare cash is lottery winnings, house money anyone might casually risk. And, true to his character or lack of it, Dobbs complains of his partners’ supposed ingratitude later in a fit of pique at the mention of the word “hog,” see below.

  1. The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend---Ancient Proverb

When interloper Cody---formidable Olympian, Bruce Bennett, a Warner contract player---appears uninvited at the campsite Dobbs menaces him and awkwardly punches him. (Though personally intimidating, Bogart shied from fisticuffs, onscreen and off.)

Overplaying a weak hand, Cody suggests he might report the find to Mexican authorities if he is not made partner. The threat enables Dobbs to convince reluctant Curtin and Howard to murder Cody rather than share future earnings. Significantly, Curtin and Howard appear sick at heart as they draw their revolvers, whereas Dobbs leads the party and betrays more than a hint of bloodlust.

Cody escapes his fate through the fortuitous arrival of Gold Hat, the memorable psychopath played by veteran Mexican actor, Alfonso Bedoya, and his posse of bandits. (Actual bandits in real life, they teased and terrified Bedoya even as his legendary performance—“stinkin’ badges”---frightens and delights viewers.)

Thus a prompt reversal of fortune transforms Cody from mortal enemy to brother-at-arms in the desperate gun battle he does not survive.

  1. Cody's Widow: Moral Beacon

As Howard, and then the more literate Curtin, solemnly read a letter from Cody’s wife---now widow---we learn Cody’s backstory: he sought gold not for himself but to provide a better life for his wife and family.

Heretofore in “Treasure” the only on-screen women have been streetwalkers, as mercantile as the men. The widow’s letter is anything but transactional. She loves Cody unconditionally: dismissive of gold, for “we’ve already found life’s real treasure.”

Howard and Curtin, unloved and childless men, are moved as we, and promise a share of their find to the widow, as though Cody had been partner from the start. Indeed had Cody not joined them in battle, the outcome might well have been death or worse, as Traven’s novel and the original screenplay forewarn.

Selfish Dobbs dismisses his partners as fools who “must’ve been born in a revival meeting.” Cody’s fate is his own bad luck and Dobb’s good.

The virtues of Cody’s off-screen widow will figure prominently in the denouement of the picture.

  1. Game Theory Rules

Every human encounter in “Treasure” rings true, for each abides by classical game theory’s four possible outcomes:

Win-Win

Lose-Lose

Win-Lose

Lose-Win

Only Win-Win grants enduring mutual benefit.

Venture capitalist Pat McCormack is strictly Win-Lose: he hires work crews and “when it comes time to pay off he takes a powder.”

Dobbs and Curtin only secure their pay when they tag-team sociopathic McCormick in a vicious bar fight, not easily won.

So McCormack goes from Win-Lose to Lose-Win and Dobbs & Curtin go Win-Win, then partner with Howard for a hoped-for Win-Win-Win.

But when the going gets tough Dobbs breaks ranks, calls for a default Lose-Lose-Lose, even threatening Howard’s life with a rock.

Howard laughs it off: “Without me you two would die here more miserable than rats!”

He taunts his flagging partners with another animal analogy, “You’re dumber than the dumbest jackass!”

For Dobbs and Curtin fail to appreciate “the riches you’re treading on with your own feet:”

Gold! And Howard dances—quite ably---with joy!

Suddenly it’s Win-Win-Win, as hoped and dreamed, thanks to Howard, who now educates his partners in the difficult, dangerous and dirty work of goldmining.

  1. The Fish That Always Stinks: Selfish

Win-Win-Win endures only with generosity and tolerance.

Selfish Dobbs possesses neither. He insists on dividing the day’s yield three ways nightly, setting the stage for conflict rather than the mutuality that has heretofore brought success.

Dobbs is consistently selfish and intolerant:

  • He does not share water with Cody;
  • He would not exchange tobacco with the Indians (“Why not everybody smoke his own?”)
  • He will not support Cody’s widow;
  • He mocks the Indians’ moral/religious obligation to repay Howard for reviving a drowned boy; indeed he comments that Howard has been duly punished for his kindness.

To be sure, Howard’s good deed---the most beautiful, solemn, near-religious moment of the picture---will springload the conclusion of Howard’s story.

  1. Bulls Eat, Bears Eat, Hogs Get Slaughtered---Wall Street Maxim

Put simply, greed kills.

Dobbs, who tellingly bridles at the very word “hog,” is dissatisfied with $35,000 in gold, his one-third share of the $105,000 find.

In today’s dollars the total find is 1.5 million and Dobb’s share half a million: the difference between a small fortune and substantial wealth.

As Dobbs plainly states, a one-third share might support the remainder of Howard’s life and minimalist lifestyle.

But Dobbs is younger, seeks pleasure, luxury and revenge upon the cruel world he inhabits. Selfish to the core, he will not share.

Thus when moral duty calls Howard to the Indian boy’s aid and honorable Curtin won’t agree to abandon Howard and plunder his share, Dobbs descends further into greed and paranoia. Dobbs projects his own selfish wishes onto Curtin, then rationalizes Curtin’s murder to take the full pot lest Curtin kill him first. Curtin, too noble to take Dobbs’ life in cold blood, suffers the consequences.

"Wars are caused by undefended wealth." --- Ernest Hemingway

But Dobbs does not reckon that “one less gun” applies to Curtin’s “death” as well as Cody’s. Now he is alone to face Gold Hat & Co on the long journey back to Tampico, which he never completes.

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." --- African Proverb

  1. Inversion: From Loss To Learning

When wounded Curtin, newly christened medicine man Howard, and the befriended Indians find the empty sacks of gold among the ancient ruins, Curtin is understandably crestfallen.

Howard, who has taught Curtin much, mentored and fathered him, wisely laughs off the loss and offers Curtin his greatest gift yet: the thinking tool beloved of Buffett and Munger, inversion:

“Laugh, Curtin, old boy, it’s a great joke played on us by the Lord or fate or nature---whatever you prefer, but whoever or whatever played it, certainly had a sense of humor. The gold has gone back to where we found it. This is worth ten months of suffering and labor, this joke is.”

And Curtin is a quick study:

“You know, the worst ain’t so bad when it finally happens. Not half as bad as you figure it’ll be before it’s happened. I’m no worse off than I was in Tampico. All I’m out is a couple hundred bucks when you come right down to it. Not very much compared to what Dobbsie lost.”

You can view this brilliant and touching climax here:

  1. "Life's Real Treasure" --- Cody's Widow

Sheltered beneath a stone wall among ruins now perhaps speckled with gold dust, Howard reveals his plan:

He will live out his remaining years as medicine man to the tribe he has befriended, with honor, respect and likely even love, as suggested in earlier scenes where Howard, pampered and adored by young Indian women, breaks the fourth wall to wink at the camera.

Remarkably, it was Walter Huston himself who introduced the greatest song of late-life love, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song,” from “Knickerbocker Holiday,” heard here and now timeless:

The more we learn of Howard’s development as a person—prospector, horseman, marksman and warrior, musician, philosopher, dancer, teacher, healer---the more we admire him; moreover, he is moral compass and guide to this amazing story.

Howard is kind, courageous, restrained when need be, bold when action is warranted. Howard eschews worldly wealth even as he sought it: he offers his share of what remains of their goods to Curtin, if Curtin will but visit widow Cody and bring the terrible news in person.

And perhaps, with another wink to the camera, Howard suggests that Curtin fulfill the ancient duty to marry his brother-at-arm’s widow, whom we already know to be as good as she is beautiful.

Howard, at last, is matchmaker, as well.

  1. Bogie's Redemption: "The African Queen" (1951)

But what of “Treasure” lead Humphrey Bogart, fallen Dobbs?

Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD, in his book “Movies on Your Mind,” argues that movie stars inhabit our unconscious as eternal icons, even as they pass from role to role, molding the identities that will enshrine them forever.

In the Bogart persona Dr. Greenberg traces the seeds of paranoia from “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) through “Casablanca” (1942) to full flower in “Treasure” where frank psychosis leads Bogart’s Dobbs to his ignominious death in an off-screen beheading.

If Greenberg’s thesis is correct, John Huston surely sought redemption for his pal Bogart in “The African Queen.”

Spoiler alert!

Here grizzled, alcoholic, heretofore marginal Charlie Allnut finds sobriety and purpose, romance and heroism, accepting even death upon the gallows, through the love of yet another good woman, Katherine Hepburn’s iron-willed, devoted missionary, Rose, whom he joins in selfless devotion to flag and country.

The role won Bogart his long overdue Oscar for Best Actor: a gold-plated statuette that is the ultimate tribute, of love and respect, an actor can receive.

To be sure and to be clear that is Howard’s message at the close of “Treasure,” that love, honor and respect are far greater treasure than gold.


About the Author

Mark Tobak, MD, is a general adult psychiatrist in private practice. He is the former chief of inpatient geriatric psychiatry and now an attending physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison, NY. He graduated the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Columbia University School of General Studies. Dr. Tobak also has a law degree from Fordham University School of Law and was admitted to the NY State Bar. His work appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Psychiatric Times, and American Journal of Medicine and Pathology. He is the author of Anyone Can Be Rich! A Psychiatrist Provides the Mental Tools to Build Your Wealth, which received high praise from Warren Buffett.

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Mark Tobak, MD, is a general adult psychiatrist in private practice. He is the former chief of inpatient geriatric psychiatry and now an attending physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison, NY. He graduated the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Columbia University School of General Studies. Dr. Tobak also has a law degree from Fordham University School of Law and was admitted to the NY State Bar. His work appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Psychiatric Times, and American Journal of Medicine and Pathology. He is the author of Anyone Can Be Rich! A Psychiatrist Provides the Mental Tools to Build Your Wealth, which received high praise from Warren Buffett.
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