Monday, February 19, 2007

The True Treasure of Sierra Madre

[Peg and Al are teachers. Late on a Tuesday afternoon Peg enters the lounge to find Al nuking a package of popcorn.]

Peg: That smells good, Al--reminds me that it's almost dinner time.

Al: I've got to finish my lesson plans for the week and this is some pretty good quiet time, so I'll have this snack as I work on them. If they've started playing, I might check in on the basketball team before heading out.

Peg: It's movie night for me. My sister usually drops in with a video. We fix a big antipasto and some warm bread.

Al: Now that sounds like a plan. What's the film tonight?

Peg: I told her to surprise me. I have no clue, but she usually picks out something good, since she keeps track of all the new releases.

Al: My current movie viewing is really limited, but I did watch a great oldie over the weekend: "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Peg: I don't care for those old things--they're just too primitive and dated for me. There aren't any women in that one, either.

Al: I hadn't looked at it that way--do you think that makes it sexist, too?

Peg: Probably.

Al: Wait a minute--there are some women in the story.

Peg: You were seeing things.

Al: No, no, I'm not--there are at least . . . three.

Peg: Where?

Al: That crooked businessman--the Irish guy--who swindles Dobbs and Curtin out of their wages for building that oil camp: when they meet back up with him in Tampico, he has a girl on his arm. Of course, she's probably a prostitute, since he doesn't remember her name and she has to correct him.

Peg: THAT woman doesn't help your case at all--a film with one woman, in the minor role of a prostitute!

Al: But the scene has a point--she's exploited, too, just like Dobbs and Curtin and many other poor laborers.

Peg: So you're saying the film is secretly a feminist manifesto?

Al: I didn't say that, but it might be about exploitation, and that certainly has a gender aspect to it.

Peg: True, but I'm not convinced that the story is as progressive as you say. Besides--you said there were three women, not one. How do you figure?

Al: The second woman has a whole monologue in the story.

Peg: You're dreaming.

Al: No. Remember Cody--the fourth drifter who tried to blackmail his way into the partnership with Dobbs, Curtin and Howard?

Peg: Maybe. And that wonderful trio of exploited heroes plots to kill him in cold blood to protect their gold. Truly a sordid tale.

Al: After Cody gets killed in the gunfight with the banditos, the other three check his wallet and find that letter from his wife, who has let him go on this gold adventure while she tends to their farm, orchard and family.

Peg: There--you see? An oppressed housewife waiting for Mister Bacon Earner to make his triumphant return, money bags and all.

Al: But he doesn't, does he? Try it this way--a strong, loving voice of conscience calling all the dreamers back to reality. And even Cody's listened, I think, because he's willing to try that desperate gamble with the guys on the mountain--apparently at the risk of his life. You'd have to think that reading her letter at least helps convince the troop to leave the mountain--and at the end of the story gives Curtin, who is much wiser now, a mission of hope for his future. It's not all perfectly symmetrical, but I think it might be an apt and just resolution, and it gives this woman a voice in the story.

Peg: So, Curtin's going to swap the hunt for gold for the pursuit of a domesticated little woman?

Al: He's swapping greed for something much more human. I'd bet the human side won't leave him as empty as the gold-lust does.

Peg: I'm not sure I buy that. But, O.K., where's the third woman?

Al: This one's a stretch--be ready.

Peg: I should have known.

Al: The third woman is Gaia, Howard's goddess. She creates, gives and takes away. Of course, only Howard acknowledges this powerful female, courts her and knows her ways.

Peg: Huh?

Al: The earth--the mine--the mountain--the Sierra Madre--the Mother.

Peg: I don't see it, and I'm not sure I want to.

Al: Answer this: where will Howard wind up at the end?

Peg: He says he'll go with the Indians. They'll treat him like a chief or something.

Al: Not a chief; a shaman, healer, medicine man--someone who knows the wisdom of Mother Nature, by whatever names the Indians know her and her totems.

Peg: Just because he revives that little boy? Even he says it's common knowledge, Boy-Scout tricks.

Al: I'm not sure it's actually that he heals--he does acknowledge the Indians' request and is open to them in ways none of the other adventurers are. He shows a rapport with the Indians, and they call and ordain him their shaman.

Peg: It's a nice gimmick, but I have a feeling there's more to this story.

Al: Sure, because there's more to Howard. His values, especially in the end, are very different. You couldn't imagine either Dobbs or Curtin doing anything other than they did when the
Indians came to ask for help, could you?

Peg: Of course not.

Al: He's the only one at that point for whom the issue of the gold is something that has a chance of being transcended. Howard's getting over his sickness already.

Peg: He's got a different attitude toward the gold at the end, too. I guess you have to put in the same ballpark the issue of his uproarious laughter, when he and Curtin figure out that with Dobbs the gold is gone for good, too.

Al: That's the incident that actually pointed me in his direction. He's the key antagonist to Dobbs and the key to the whole of the story's meaning. Howard heals; Dobbs gets sicker and sicker, mentally and physically, as the story wears on. The improvement in Howard's appearance opposes the decline in Dobbs'.

Peg: You're stretching again.

Al: I don't think so. When Howard gets into the wilderness and on the mountain, even Dobbs and Curtin have a little conversation about Howard's surprising energy and youthfulness. Dobbs says he's like a mountain goat.

Peg: So Howard has this special relationship with the Indians because he is in better touch with nature?

Al: In a way, yes. Howard's in better touch with HIS nature, at least. So there's one sort of theme: compassion is the opposite of greed and selfishness. Compassion heals and greed is a sickness--at least of the soul. The characters' physical appearance in the movie is a great metaphor that points to the moral of the story. Howard understands nature and human nature. He knows himself and his "connectedness" with things much better than the others know theirs.

Peg: I suppose that would explain that strange scene that's always bothered me--why Howard stops on the descent from the mountain and makes the party salute "her" for giving them the gold.

Al: It's real incongruous--almost out of place.

Peg: I know you'll tell me that makes it important, because films have no accidents, or something like that.

Al: Sure. Great films are completely intentional. No accidents. Every detail is in a place where the director thinks it belongs. When something seems to stick out oddly, it deserves attention. So, on the thesis that this is a great film, things like the salute to the mountain, the boy's healing and Howard's uproarious scene at the end are windows into John Huston's mind.

Peg: So you think that this is more than a tale of greed and how "the love of money is the root of all evil"?

Al: Yeah, I think it's much more than that. Of course, the tale of greed is there to carry the story and prevent it from being, umm, preachy.

Peg: But there is an agenda.

Al: That's not a bad thing. All art portrays an observation about reality, life, nature, society, the human psyche, good and evil, gender, and the intentions of the human heart. --Are you sure you don't want any popcorn?

Peg: No, I've got to get rolling. My sister's probably waiting for me to show up. I may stop and pick up some popcorn on the way, however. Now I really wonder what film she's coming over with.

Al: Whatever it is, enjoy it. Don't forget the popcorn!

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