Skip to main content

The Accidental Filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Dozens, maybe even hundreds of foreign-made films have tried to capture a realistic, hyper-realistic or allegorical vision of Mexico, with an outsider’s eye that is torn between the every-day and the exotic. The Lady from Shanghai, by Orson WellesThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by John HustonButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, by George Roy HillThe Wild Bunch, by Sam Peckinpah, or Two Mules for Sister Sara, by Don Siegel, among others, are just some examples of this foreign vision of Mexico that I would like to consider.

El tesoro de la Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston)
El tesoro de la Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston)

In 1948, the then twenty-something reporter Luis Spota discovered, in the archives of the Mexican Interior Ministry, an immigration form bearing the name Berick Traven Torsvan. He discovered that this enigmatic man, who wrote stories about Mexico under the name B. Traven, lived in Acapulco. Spota tracked him down, interviewed and photographed him, but Traven denied his identity, instead identifying himself as a man called Hal Croves – Traven’s screenwriter and agent. All of this led to Spota writing a report for a magazine called Mañana, unveiling the mysterious figure of B. Traven.

A few months before, on January 24th 1948, Hollywood premiered the first (and doubtless best) film adaptation of B. Traven’s work – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film is the fascinating story about a group of American gold prospectors in Mexico, directed by John Huston. However the filming on Mexican soil, which began in 1947, was by no means easy.

On Sunday February 23rd 1947, the weekly publication ‘Cine Gráfico’ published the following article: “People prevent the filming of a movie. They consider the scenes degrading to Mexico. The people of Tampico became angry when they witnessed the filming of scenes for the movie The Treasures of the Sierra Madre, which was being made by Warner Bros, under the direction of John Huston and with the presence of their Production Manager Luis Sánchez Tello. They were enraged by one particular scene in which beggars, drunkards and other ragged and filthy men were grouped together to give Tampico the ‘atmosphere’ of 50 years ago. The people mutinied against the film crew and appealed to the supreme authority of the Port, who finally banned the shoot and seized the tape that had already been filmed.”

Apparently, the problems that arose in Tampico were the result of a fake story published by a local newspaper. Saviours came in the form of Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, friends of Traven, who interceded to challenge the accusations against the production, which was also looking to shoot in other locations like Bavispe, Sonora, Acapulco, San José Purúa and Jungapeo in Michoacán, as well as the Eastern and Southern Sierra Madre itself.

Although Traven wrote the screenplay, he accepted Huston’s treatment, sending his agent Hal Croves (that is, himself) to serve as a translator and technical advisor. Croves/Traven suggested the scenes in which the train is attacked by a group of bandits led by Sombrero Dorado (the great Alfonso “Indio” Bedoya), as well as the exchange of fire between Bedoya and the character of Fred C. Dobbs, played by Humphrey Bogart. He also proposed to Huston that he should play the white-suited American who gives Dobbs a silver peso every time he asks for money for food.

With a spectacular soundtrack by Max SteinerThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre, set in 1925, captures the daily life of downtown Tampico: the Anton Restaurant; the Nuevo Sexenio Cantina; the Arches in the plaza; a child who picks up a cigarette butt from the ground and smokes it with pleasure, or the gringos without work who wander around begging their compatriots for money. Then there is a wonderful scene between Bogart, who pays 80 cents for his food, and the lottery seller (Robert Blake), who offers him a ticket that adds up to the number 13 for just 20 cents.

Dobbs and a new friend Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are employed by a contractor (Barton Maclene), who takes them to an oil rig and then sneaks away to avoid paying them. In Black Bear Bedrooms, Dobbs and Curtin meet an old bounty hunter named Howard (the extraordinary Walter Huston), who tells them that greed and ambition destroy even the wisest of men. The friends run into the contractor, collect their money and then, with their winning ticket, go with Howard to seek gold in the Sierra Madre, where fate will test their souls and their reason, even more so after the discovery of a large gold mine and the arrival of another lonely gold-digger (Bruce Bennett), as well as the appearance of a gang of Mexican bandits and a group of indigenous people trying to save a child who has fallen into a lagoon.

Poster El tesoro de la Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston) 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which won the Oscars for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Walter Huston) is a reflection of Traven's own experience with the indigenous peoples of forgotten parts of Mexico, as well as a story about the human condition, ambition and the arrival of 'civilization' as a disruptive force that destroys the balance of idyllic places. The film gives us not only the dust clouds that obscure the view, the sweat that soaks the clothes or the dust that sticks to the whole body, but also the paranoia, mistrust and gradual moral and mental breakdown of the protagonist, in brutal scenes like the one in which Dobbs crosses paths with three Mexican bandits (played by the exceptional supporting actors "Indio" Bedoya, José Torvay and Margarito Luna), or another in which old Howard seeks to revive the drowned child before the expectant faces of the indigenous families that surround him, in particular that of the child's father (the great Manuel Dondé).

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is also an involuntary tribute to the work of some of Mexico's greatest supporting actors, who are visually recognizable, even if we don't know their names. Aside from those already mentioned are Guillermo "El Indio" Calles as the town grocer, Arturo Soto Rangel as a worker from the Municipal Headquarters and Roberto Cañedo as a Federal Lieutenant. The film is one of a handful of foreign masterpieces filmed in Mexico, tinged with both credibility and fascination for the excess, mysticism and mysterious landscapes that populated Mexico.