My analysis of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

In the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

This movie really surprised me.  It was made in 1948, around the time of what is called the “Second Red Scare“, when concern about communist infiltration was very high.  Given that, the content of the movie is astounding.

Fred Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are unemployed guys looking for work.  They convince an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) to help them on an expedition for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.  The first remarkable thing about the movie is a speech given by Howard in his first scene:

Howard: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Flophouse Bum: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
Flophouse Bum: I never thought of it just like that.
Howard: Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

What’s so remarkable about that, you wonder?  Well, what Howard is describing there is what is known as a Labor Theory of Value–the value of something is determined by the labor put forth to get it.  This is an economic idea that is commonly associated with a fellow named Karl Marx.  And it’s a response to the claim that gold’s value derives from its scarcity–a major component of non-Marxian, liberal economics.

Also in the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

So, about twenty minutes into the movie, we have gotten a lecture on Marxian economics.  This is all the more interesting because the rest of the movie is devoted to proving over and over that greed for wealth corrupts people–specifically, Dobbs.  Howard repeatedly predicts that the gold will drive men to madness, and does it ever.

Dobbs’s inevitable corruption is fun to watch–that Bogart guy was a pretty good actor, you know that?–and Walter Huston  is excellent, even though his role is fairly predictable.  He is, essentially, an infallible sage, and normally those characters are pretty dull, but Huston imbues him with personality.  What is not clear to me is why he bothered to come along, since he believes almost from the outset that the expedition will be a disaster, and it proves to be exactly that.

It was odd to me that the movie’s most famous, yet often mis-quoted, line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” was spoken by a rather poorly-acted, bandit character.  I thought his character was pretty weak.  In fact, I felt that the bandits had too big a role in the film, when all they really needed to do was show up at the end when Dobbs’s luck runs out.

I keep coming back to the economic “moral” of the movie, though.  It’s a very socialist message, what with the capitalist who desires to earn for himself being depicted as either a monster or a buffoon, and the character who opens up describing the labor theory of value depicted as a wise and thoughtful figure.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: “Well, this is it– Mysterious Man has finally gone completely crazy and is now seeing communist conspiracies everywhere.  He must have been listening to Glenn Beck too much, and he just lost his tenuous grip on reality.”

1950s anti-communist pamphlet

To be clear, I’m not saying I think this movie was some kind of evil communist-Hollywood indoctrination plot.  It was based on a book by a mysterious German called “B. Traven“, who was apparently a socialist.  Well, when your movie is based on a book by a German socialist, you can’t be surprised if some German socialism creeps in.  I doubt John Huston wanted to make Marxist propaganda; he just wanted to make a Western, and the book he adapted it from had some Marxist propaganda in it.

What surprises me is that, despite how popular accusing people in Hollywood of communism was at the time, the film wasn’t banned or censored, and John Huston wasn’t hauled up before the H.U.A.C. to explain himself.  I’m not saying any of that should have happened, I’m just saying it’s weird that the film apparently got released without any censorship or controversy, which is kind of amazing given the zeitgeist.

8 Comments

    1. That’s why it’s such a good movie–whatever you think about the political subtext, it’s a very entertaining film to watch. I would think that anybody–well, except maybe an Ayn Rand fan–could put the political philosophizing aside and just enjoy it for Bogart and Huston’s performances.

  1. A truly interesting take on this old film- I’ll have to watch it myself. I think the closest surprise experience I had like this was an unexpected gem in Escape from Sobibor- a 1987 film by Jack Gold about the Nazis’ extermination camp at, you guessed it, Sobibor.

    And seriously? McCarthy let this slide? What a strange world we live in. How do you suppose the film slipped by, as compared with some of the other media and personalities who received the brunt of cencorship?

    1. My best guess, frankly, is that they were focusing on foreigners who made modern, edgier films. The communist hunters were more interested in going after non-natives or else people who “seemed different”. They didn’t pay as much attention to an American director making a Western movie.

      Now, this isn’t a perfect explanation–after all, an Oklahoma-born Roman Catholic (and former Marine) screenwriter named Michael Wilson got blacklisted for, as near as I can tell, no reason. So they were willing to accuse anyone. But my guess is that the nationalist/nativist elements in the anti-communist movement were more interested in attacking foreign or otherwise “different” (read:non-white or non-Christian) artists.

  2. I’m sure the censors loved the racism in the film, the depictions of Mexicans, the villagers need to have the child saved by a white sage, but in 1948 the second Red Scare had yet to reach its apex and they were not quite yet to see the boogie man everywhere.

  3. By the way, 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, not well received at the time, was a much more “subversive” film, but it’s rightfully grown into one of America’s favorite films.

    1. I have not seen it, but I hear it portrays capitalism (bankers, anyway) in a fairly negative light.

      Amusingly, I seem to remember Glenn Beck himself, the man who sees socialism lurking everywhere, *praising* that film on his show or something. You just never know how people will interpret things.

  4. As a fan of Austrian School economics, I immediately saw Marx’s labor value theory but this can also be seen in Adam Smith’s writing.

    Please compare to Wealth of Nations

    CHAPTER X OF WAGES AND PROFIT IN THE DIFFERENT EMPLOYMENTS OF LABOUR AND STOCK

    Smith, Adam (2011-04-29). The Wealth of Nations (Illustrated) (p. 69). . Kindle Edition.

    “… Fifthly, the wages of labour in different employments vary according to the probability or improbability of success in them.

    The probability that any particular person shall ever be qualified for the employments to which he is educated, is very different in different occupations. In the greatest part of mechanic trades success is almost certain; but very uncertain in the liberal professions. Put your son apprentice to a shoemaker, there is little doubt of his learning to make a pair of shoes; but send him to study the law, it as at least twenty to one if he ever makes such proficiency as will enable him to live by the business. In a perfectly fair lottery, those who draw the prizes ought to gain all that is lost by those who draw the blanks. In a profession, where twenty fail for one that succeeds, that one ought to gain all that should have been gained by the unsuccessful twenty. The counsellor at law, who, perhaps, at near forty years of age, begins to make something by his profession, ought to receive the retribution, not only of his own so tedious and expensive education, but of that of more than twenty others, who are never likely to make any thing by it. How extravagant soever the fees of counsellors at law may sometimes appear, their real retribution is never equal to this. Compute, in any particular place, what is likely to be annually gained, and what is likely to be annually spent, by all the different workmen in any common trade, such as that of shoemakers or weavers, and you will find that the former sum will generally exceed the latter. But make the same computation with regard to all the counsellors and students of law, in all the different Inns of Court, and you will find that their annual gains bear but a very small proportion to their annual expense, even though you rate the former as high, and the latter as low, as can well be done. The lottery of the law, therefore, is very far from being a perfectly fair lottery; and that as well as many other liberal and honourable professions, is, in point of pecuniary gain, evidently under-recompensed….”

    Smith, Adam (2011-04-29). The Wealth of Nations (Illustrated) (pp. 73-74). . Kindle Edition.

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