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.
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.”
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.