Hollywood and Communism: How Did ''The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'' Support Marxist Ideology
“I know what gold does to men’s souls.”These sage words were spoken by Howard, a crusty old prospector who was far wiser than his ragged appearance suggested. This character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre spoke the words of B. Traven and John Huston, author and screenwriter, respectively. Alone, this line from the movie speaks to the theme of greed. Still, once we delve further into the dialogue and symbolism employed by Huston and his cast, we will discover that the message addresses significant political and economic issues. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre supports Marxist ideology by denouncing capitalism through the use of explicit dialogue, tacit symbolism, and the psychological deterioration of Fred C. Dobbs.
Tampico, Mexico of 1925 is where the tale begins. Two Americans, Fred C. Dobbs and Bob Curtin (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt), are subsisting on the hand-outs of strangers in Mexico. It is never discussed why the men have drifted south of the U.S. border; rather, it is left to the viewer to draw his own conclusions. As the original novel was written in 1927, it is possible that Dobbs and Curtin—— portrayed as men in their mid-thirties—— are veterans of the Great War. Another scenario is that they became disillusioned or neglected by the financial boom of the 1920s. Regardless of their back-story, Dobbsie and Curt (as they refer to each other) are destitute members of the labor class who no longer fit into American society. They struggle daily to exist without purpose or intention until they wander into the “Oso Negro.”
The Treasure of Sierra Madres critique of Capitalism
The Oso is essentially a flophouse with cheap cots laid closely together. This is where Dobbsie and Curt encounter Howard (Walter Huston), the older but spry prospector. As the two ex-patriots drop onto their cots, Howard regals a captive audience with tales of his illustrious days as a prospector and miner. At the time, gold was worth twenty dollars per ounce. A member of Howard’s audience wonders if gold is so valuable because it is a rare find. Howard corrects his young friend, telling him that gold is all around, just waiting to be found. The true reason that gold is so valuable, he explains, is, “An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the finding and the getting of it.” “Human labor,” the key to Howard’s logic, is apropos to the Marxist theory of labor power. In “Wage Labor and Capital,” Marx claims that the “capitalist buys this labor-power” and uses this human labor to further his profit.Conversely, the worker sells his labor to survive. This is the message Howard delivers to a group of men who are all of the labor class. Howard’s audience consists of men, primarily Americans, who live hand to mouth and sleeping on filthy cots in a Mexican flophouse. This ilk is the very antithesis of the bourgeois class.
Marx claims that “Capital…is a bourgeois production relation.”Proletariat and bourgeois classes are separated not only by money but also by class. The proletariat class labors while the bourgeois class profits from proletariat labor. Marx insists that without workers, there can be no capital. Thus laborers must comprehend their collective value. The importance of Howard making this statement is that he has experienced wealth by striking gold in the past. In Treasure, Howard recognizes this as experience has taught him, “As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But, when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.” Howard holds that wealth leads to greed. He tells his audience, both in the Oso and in the movie theater, that obtaining riches from extraction leads to a man’s material or psychological demise. Marx spoke of extracting labor from humans, while in Treasure the extraction was symbolized by the mountain that held the gold.
John Huston employs implicit symbolism to convey the Marxian message that those who produce are exploited by those who profit from production. The greatest emblematic tool at Huston’s disposal is the mountain itself. Dobbsie, Curt, and Howard exploit and transform the mountain for their own profit. They literally climb to the top, as capitalists figuratively do, on the back of the mountain. Like the workers’ labor power, gold is the mountain’s commodity. Also, like the worker “whose sole source of livelihood is the sale of his labor power,” the mountain “cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is, the capitalist class, without renouncing his [its] existence.”The mountain possesses a commodity, which the fledgling capitalists——Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard——feel free to consume as their own purchase. Further, when the prospectors discover gold, they begin the transformation into the loathsome capitalists who exploited them a short time ago.
Unity of the Proletariat
Before encountering Howard in the Oso, Dobbsie and Curt hire on as laborers in Tampico. They find work rigging mines for a contractor named Pat. After a couple of weeks of rigorous work in the Tampico heat, Curt, Dobbsie, and the rest of the crew return to town expecting to collect their wages. The conniving boss manages to temporarily skirt the issue of money, claiming that he will go to town and return with the men’s pay. The next scene portrays Dobbsie and Curt destitute and again begging wages from “fellow Americans.” As they muddle through the streets, soaked in the filth of their labor, they spy Pat in a new suit of clothes, strolling down the street with a beautiful young woman. The clothing alone symbolically communicates the Marxian notion that while the capitalist thrives and profits, the “worker receives a means of subsistence” and nothing more.Pat profited from the labor of Dobbs and Curtin, thus garnering more capital for further profit. Dobbsie and Curt are not inclined to allow Pat to bask in the fruits of their labor while they go hungry.
Our heroes follow Pat into a cantina and demand their money. Pat buys them a drink, trying to work his way back into their favor. The two men hold firm to their desire for their due wages, and soon a fight ensues, instigated by Pat. When fighting Pat individually, the men have no success, but they can knock Pat down into a stupor when they work together. Dobbsie grabs Pat’s wallet and takes only the wages due to him and Curt. This scene is very telling in that it portrays the capitalist as a cheat who cannot be defeated by one lone man. Once they have done this, they now set out with Howard to overcome their static proletariat state. Now, John Huston takes the viewer on a journey to discover what happens to the labor class once the capitalist has been overthrown. Huston conveys the message that there is strength in numbers and that in unity, the proletariat class can overcome the exploitation of the capitalist.
Greed Takes Over
While loading their mules at the base of the mountain, Dobbsie states that regardless of how much gold the mountain holds, he will take just what he came for and go, “even if there was a million left to find.” The camera then finds Howard’s face to depict his disbelief. For we must remember, Howard, knows “what gold does to men’s souls.” Once the three begin their trek up the mountain on their “business venture,” they are now capitalists. They use their own money to furnish tools and equipment. Though they do indeed rely on their own labor, the mountain now becomes symbolic of the commodity that Marx names “labor power.” Whereas the three prospectors embark with the intent of profiting from this business venture, the mountain (laborer) holds a commodity that is a “life-activity…a means to enable him to exist.”Howard remains skeptical, whereas Dobbs and Curtin have every intention of returning to Tampico with “bags full of gold.”
The symbolic climb to the top is long and arduous. Although the mountain is where they will find their treasure, it is also the greatest obstacle in their quest for wealth. When a bush or a limb impedes their progress, they cut it down, trampling upon it to reach a higher elevation. Finally attaining the apex, the men strike gold, a lot of gold.After celebrating, the men toil, day after day, in the hot sun to procure the precious element, while at night, they talk around the campfire. Initially, Dobbs maintains that he will leave the mountain after finding five thousand dollars worth of gold. Howard scoffs and claims that “not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from finding ten thousand more.” Dobbsie stares at the gold powder with a gleam in his eyes that the other two lack. He decides it is best to divide the gold and make “each man responsible for his own goods.” This marks the onset of separation between the men. The unity has been broken. Here, we witness the division of the combined strength of men, which creates a weak and greedy bourgeois mentality, particularly in Fred C. Dobbs.
“I know what kind of ideas even supposed decent people get when gold is at stake,” Howard mumbles as he sets out to hide his bag of gold. The solidarity displayed at the beginning of their endeavor has vanished. The idea of profit has superseded the notion of friendship and unity in the mind of Dobbs. The group now present in front of the fire is less trusting and more anxious about their individual wealth than when they first camp. After dividing the day’s finds, the men discuss what each will do with his money. Howard plans on a quiet and relaxing retirement, while Curtin hopes to grow and manage a fruit orchard. Dobbs, on the other hand, represents the bourgeois mentality. He mentions new clothes, beautiful women, and great feasts of decadent food and drink. He is seeking a bourgeois lifestyle filled with material things and the supposed pleasure they bring. He has only short-sighted goals sated with the tools of instant, albeit temporary, satisfaction. It is upon imagining the riches money can buy that we see a sharp turn in his personality.
The Fall of Fred C. Dobbs
Dobbsie begins to talk to himself and displays symptoms of paranoia. When he awakens one night to discover Howard is gone from the tent, he frantically suspects that Howard has gone off to hunt for his stash of gold. Another occasion of Dobbsie’s paranoia is depicted when Curt and Howard send him to the village for supplies. Dobbs assumes the other two will abscond with his riches while he is gone. These two instances are clear cases of projection on the part of Dobbs. He fears Howard and Curt will do what he himself might do; reap profits from the labor of others.
Fred C. Dobbs is portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. “Bogie” had cemented his place atop the Hollywood hierarchy earlier in the decade with the films such as High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. His portrayal of Dobbs, thought by many to be the best of his career, holds a much greater impact than if a lesser-known actor had played the part. At the beginning of the film, Dobbs elicits a sympathetic response from the viewer. He is a down-on-his-luck American trying to forge his way through life in Mexico. With every grain of sand that is sifted, Dobbsie devolves into a loathsome character.
By the end of the film, the audience hates him. For a 1948 American movie audience to hate Humphrey Bogart, a drastic character transformation had to have taken place. At small increments throughout the film, Dobbs converts himself into a delusional and paranoid greed monger. His appearance changes through make-up and hair dye. The darker his personality becomes, so too does his hair. His eyes are shadowed to give an almost monstrous appearance. Howard and Curt retain a lighter complexion than Dobbs as their psyches remain intact. Bogart, a star of enormous magnitude, transformed Fred C. Dobbs into an unattractive, homicidal psychotic who was detested by movie-goers. This is a testament to Huston’s direction and, more importantly, to Bogart’s acting skill.As he was the top star in Hollywood at the time, he (as Dobbs) had the furthest to fall.
Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard are three men grouped in one unit. When one member of the group departed, the cohesive strength of the assemblage diminished. In the film, there are two occasions when Howard physically leaves the group, leaving Curt and Dobbs to fend for themselves. Dobbsie mentally left the group when notions of wealth entered his mind, and his soul was permeated by greed.
In the end, Dobbsie figuratively lost his head and did so literally at the hands of the bandits. Howard and Curt returned from the mountain safely, though they lost all of their treasure to nature. The bandits took the sacks of gold from Dobbsie, who had absconded with all of the gold. They mistook the gold dust for sand and broke the bags open in the midst of a dust storm. By the time Curt and Howard arrived, their precious gold was blowing back to the mountain it came from. The men laughed at the cruel joke played upon them by nature and realized they were no worse off than when they started. The only difference was that Dobbsie was missing. Due to greed and disunity, Dobbs lost his friends, his sanity, and his life. That is the message of Fred C. Dobbs and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
- John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, (1948), DVD, directed by John Huston (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2010). B. Traven wrote the novel in 1927, yet the film did not debut until 1948. John Huston began writing the screen adaptation in November 1941. A month later, he became a member of the U.S. Armed forces. He worked under the direction of Frank Capra and was mandated to produce patriotic films for the U.S. In 1947, Huston, Humphrey Bogart (who starred in the film), and other Hollywood heavyweights went to Washington D.C. to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee’s “black-listing” film producers and directors and actors who were accused of being communist supporters. For more detailed information regarding the politics and activism of Huston and Bogart see, A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart (New York: William Morrow, 1997).
- Karl Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed., ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 657.
- Marx, "Wage Labor," 662.
- Marx, “Wage Labor and Capital,” 661.
- Marx, "Wage Labor and Capital," 663.
- Marx, "Wage Labor," 660.
- Huston, Treasure. This is the memorable scene containing the iconic “Walter Huston Dance.” This scene is a must-see, as is the whole movie, for any classic film buff.
- John Huston won the Academy Award for best director, and his father, Walter, won for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Howard. Bogie received nothing, to which one can argue a gross injustice was perpetrated by the Motion Picture Academy. He, at last, received his lone Oscar in 1952 for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut in the African Queen.