Entry from July 7, 2010

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of "The Pursuit of Happiness." The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 6th with Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

As a movie critic for twenty years this summer, I am often asked what is my favorite picture of all time. I don’t much like the question, as I have so many favorites and hate having to choose between them. The reasons for the choice are also highly subjective and, like one’s love of particular musical numbers or pictures or novels or poems, has very much to do with where one was and what one was doing and whom one was with when one first encountered them. But this is a boring and futile answer to the question, so I usually reply — given all the above stipulations as to the subjectivity of the preference — Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Directed by John Huston and released in 1948, it tells the story of three unforgettable characters, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard, played by Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and the director’s father, Walter Huston, who venture into the wild and lawless Sierra Madre of Mexico in the 1920s in search of gold.

I’m not altogether sure why I’m so fond of it. I know that Max Steiner’s wonderful score has for me memorial powers to compare with those of Proust’s madeleine biscuit, and that the theme of male comradeship seems to me particularly poignant because I first saw it as a child with my closest childhood friend, now long dead. But beyond its merely personal associations, I think there is a sort of austere classical grandeur to its moral lesson, so similar to that of Chaucer’s "Pardoner’s Tale," which might have been approved by Dr Samuel Johnson and included in his imitation of Juvenal’s tenth satire, which he called "The Vanity of Human Wishes" —

But, scarce observ'd, the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen'ral Massacre of Gold;
Wide-wasting Pest! that rages unconfin'd,
And crouds with Crimes the Records of Mankind.
For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heap'd on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.

Here’s how the movie’s old prospector, Howard, a role for which Walter Huston won a well-deserved Academy Award, puts a not dissimilar idea in the Oso Negro, a Mexican flop-house: "I know what gold does to men's souls — 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."

Among the six movies of this series on the Pursuit of Happiness, Treasure is decidedly the odd one out. Its epic scale and tragic theme, its extremes of good and evil, its large statements about life, the universe and everything, all set it apart from the domestic comedies about the lives of (mostly) ordinary, middle-class folks that the other movies in the series represent to us. But it does have some things in common with the others. Like Christmas in July, for example, it is unquestionably a movie about luck. The opening scene shows us Humphrey Bogart, a down-and-out American in Tampico, Mexico, checking the list of lottery winners and tearing up his ticket in disgust when he loses. Later he wins enough to set himself and two other men up as prospectors for gold. There, again, good luck alternates with bad, but everybody is less in charge of his own destiny than he imagines, and the movie ends with what Howard calls "a great joke played on us by the Lord or Fate or Nature, whichever you prefer" — a joke, he adds, so good that "it’s worth ten months of suffering and labor."

The movie is also, and in spite of its epic trappings, a movie about ordinary men, realistically presented, whose joys, sorrows and passions, if not their circumstances in what amounts to a state of nature, are recognizable as closely akin to our own. I would wish that I had a nickle for every time I have heard this described as a film about "greed" — except that that would mark me out as a greedy person myself, presumably, since it would be tantamount to a desire to be rich. Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review, published January 24, 1948 on the film’s opening in New York, began thus: "Greed, a despicable passion out of which other base ferments may spawn, is seldom treated in the movies with the frank and ironic contempt that is vividly manifested toward it in Treasure of Sierra Madre."

The word "greed" here is used in its political sense to mean the eagerness of people we don’t like to make their fortune. "One might almost reckon that [Huston] has filmed an intentional comment here upon the irony of avarice in individuals and in nations today," Crowther’s review continues — which is his ironic way of saying that the movie is a left-wing critique of what too many of us are still disposed to call "capitalism." Not that there isn’t warrant for this highly tendentious and political meaning of "greed" in the movie itself and, even more, in the novel on which it was based. This was written by one B. Traven, the pseudonym of a mysterious character who had a number of others and whose natal identity scholars still debate about. We do know, however, that another of his noms de guerre was Ret Marut, who edited a Communist paper called Der Ziegelbrenner (The Brick Maker) and published a pamphlet titled Die Weltrevolution Beginnt in post-World War I Germany, and that he was an official of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet before he had to flee the country, first to Britain and then to Mexico.

Though the novel’s much more explicit anti-capitalism and anti-clericalism had to be toned down for the movie, which came out just on the cusp of the post-war "Red scare," there remains in it some evidence of the author’s leftish orientation — in the form, for instance, of the dishonest and exploitative capitalist, Pat McCormick (played by Barton MacLane). More importantly, we should notice the idealized presentation of the communally organized Indians of the Mexican interior. Although they are poor and superstitious, they are shown as enjoying an idyllic primeval happiness of a kind that, as F.A. Hayek once pointed out, socialists always find it easy to believe in because it’s what they want to re-create out of industrial society. And then there is the succinct re-statement in the Oso Negro by Howard, the old prospector, of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value.

"Say, answer me this one, will you?" he says to someone off camera on our first introduction to him. "Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?" That was the price, by the way, in the mid-1920s, when the film is set, which is more than 20 years before it was made but contemporary with B. Traven’s novel.

His interlocutor ventures: "I don't know. Because it’s scarce?"

Howard then spells it out for him. "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."

"I never thought of it just like that," says the other.

"Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth."

Howard, along with the novel and the movie, therefore encourages us to look to greed as an explanation for the tragedy which is to ensue. "Aah, gold’s a devilish sort of thing, anyway. You start out, you tell yourself you'll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it. So help me, Lord, and cross my heart. Fine resolution. After months of sweatin’ yourself dizzy, and growin’ short on provisions, and findin’ nothin’, you finally come down to 15,000, then ten. Finally, you say, ‘Lord, let me just find $5,000 worth and I’ll never ask for anythin’ more the rest of my life.’"

"Five thousand dollars is a lot of money," says the other down-and-outer.

"Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add 10,000 more. Ten, you’d want to get twenty-five; twenty-five you’d want to get fifty; fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more."

That sounds like greed, right enough, and it is reinforced as such by the obvious dramatic irony of having Bogart’s Dobbs scoff that gold "don’t carry any curse with it." But the "greed" scenario is not what actually happens in the movie. The three men do set a measure to their ambition and their willingness to dig the gold, and they even take the trouble to restore the mountain to its former state when they leave with what they agree is enough. Moreover, the movie is too honest to represent their labor and striving as a mere equivalent to the banditry of "Gold Hat" — unforgettably played by the Mexican actor, Alfonso Bedoya. Though Crowther’s review claims that one of them "succumbs to the gnawing of greed," it’s not greed he succumbs to but paranoia — that is, his palpable fear that the greed of the other two men will overpower their sense of right and wrong and his determination to take action against them before it does.

In other words, "what gold does to men's souls" — at least on this showing — is not to poison them with avarice itself but rather with a deadly suspicion of avarice in others. Dobbs is really the prototype of the left-winger, a man too ready to believe that greed is corruptive of all feelings of morality and decency in his formerly trusted companions. His dark and passionate hatred of them for this mere fantasy of evil that he himself has given birth to and nurtured and encouraged in himself is the real engine that produces the calamity that follows. Dobbs’s attitude is much more akin to that of those, like Bosley Crowther, who are inclined to demonize the "greed" of others than it is like that of simple, decent men like Curtin and Howard, who merely want to get rich themselves but retain a sense of decency and responsibility.

Even Dobbs, according to Howard, was "as honest as the next fella — almost," before being eaten up with mistrust of his companions. It’s true that they all agree to kill Cody, played by Bruce Bennett, who follows them up to their camp in the mountains and threatens them with exposure to the authorities if they don’t cut him in on their find, but the defense of one’s property has always seemed to most Americans — though not always to those in other countries — one of the legitimate forms of self-defense — like that of their defense against the bandit raid in which Cody so unfortunately helps them.

One reason why B. Traven and John Huston together may seem to be giving us an essay on "greed" lies in what the three men’s — four if you count Cody — quest for gold is contrasted with. There is not only the romanticized Indian community, as already mentioned, on camera, but off-camera, there is Curtin’s golden memory of the fruit harvest in California, again involving the fellowship and joy of poor people who have nothing but their labor, its meagre rewards and each other — a memory which makes a surprise re-appearance at the end. And then there are the poignant words of the letter from Cody’s wife. "I have never thought that any material treasure is worth the pain of these long separations," they read, and even Dobbs is affected — though not enough for him to join with the others in sending her a quarter of their treasure. "It’s about time for luck to smile upon you," her letter continues, "but in case she doesn’t, remember that we have already found life’s real treasure." Once again, fruit orchards and honest toil, if not absolute poverty, are involved in this wistful notion of the good life.

Another thing that’s involved is family: the family-oriented Indians, Curtin’s family which all went fruit-picking together when he was a boy, and Cody’s wife and child, forlornly waiting for him back in Texas because he couldn’t understand, presumably, that they were "life’s real treasure." Put it that way and it becomes easy to believe that "greed" for more than a man has, or could ever really need to have, is what costs these men everything they have. As I say, I think the movie is not about greed — in this context always a political word — even though its DNA, derived from B. Traven’s communist tract undoubtedly is. But, as so often during the years of the Hays Code, the need to tone down the anti-capitalist and anti-clerical politics of the novel actually made it a better, more human story by taking such irrelevant political stuff out of it.

Whatever Traven — who, under the pseudonym of Hal Croves, appears to have worked as a consultant on the movie — or even Huston might have thought, I don’t think their film requires us to draw its stark contrast between wealth and happiness as a binary choice. Certainly, for most people it’s not. We all have to strike a balance between ambition and love, between saving and spending, between work and striving and social and familial obligation. For some this is easier than it is for others; for still others, the balance is forgotten in the excessive attachment to the object of ambition. When you fail in your ambitions, it is one consolation for your failure that you still have what inspired your ambition in the first place, whether it is family or community or merely your own sense of self-respect.

The big difference between this movie and the others we have seen or will see is that it is about failure, rather than success, but it is not a failure to make us sad but happy. As Curtin says in the end, "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." Howard then says to him: "You’re young; you have plenty of time to make three or four fortunes." We are encouraged to believe that, for Howard and for the movie in the end, failure is a natural part of the process of succeeding, and the survivors’ ability to laugh at failure takes me back to what I think it is that I like best about the movie, namely its stoicism about luck, or "what happens afterwards," to adapt the witticism of Christmas in July. It reminds me of those lines from Kipling’s "If. . ."

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss
. . .

Of course this is just one of the things in Kipling’s long conditional clause which, you will remember, eventually ends with

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And — which is more — you''ll be a Man, my son!

The theme of luck or fortune in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is something like Kipling’s "one turn of pitch-and-toss" and it elicits in two of these men, anyway, a proof of manhood and character that transcends the novel’s and the movie’s left-wing politics. Heroes in war who risk everything for their country, their brothers-in-arms or a noble cause, or the sheriff or policeman who risks his life to protect others, these were the subjects of my first movie series three years ago, the American Movie Hero. But there is something more down to earth and even something more American about the adventurers who risk it all for ambition: the ambition to get rich or die trying. At any rate, they represent more nearly a paradigm for ordinary folks who just want to make their way in the world, even if they choose less difficult and dangerous ways to do it than hunting for gold in Mexico.

"The Lord or Fate or Nature, whichever you prefer," is invoked not only by the "joke" Howard mentions but also by the shot through the campfire of Dobbs going to sleep after murdering (as he thinks) Curtin, muttering about "conscience" and how "it makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense." I wonder what the anti-religious Hal Croves-B. Traven must have made of this obvious allusion by John Huston’s camera to hell-fire? What I make of it is what I think most Americans would have made of it through most of our history: that the pursuit of happiness through individual ambition is not, as communists suppose, antithetical to decency and social responsibility but complementary to it. But you can make your own minds up as we watch one of the greatest pictures ever to come out of Hollywood.

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