Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are out of money and looking for work. They meet an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) who is convinced there is gold they can find, but he initially discourages them from going even though he knows he could not go searching for gold on his own but would need a team to make that possible. He discourages them by telling them that gold is a curse, that once they find some they won’t ever be satisfied and will turn against each other, consumed by greed. He wants to go and he wants a team but he wants to make sure that they count the cost of their journey before they set off.
Dobbs and Curtin talk amongst themselves and come to the conclusion that gold can be as much of a blessing as it is a curse, that they have to choose for themselves whether they will be in control of what they gain or will allow it to control them. Of course they’re right. The most fascinating thing about John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is that Howard knows they’re right too even though he says the opposite to them at the beginning. He’s been doing it for years and has never succumbed to the greed he talked about, and he shows no signs of ever doing that. It took several times of seeing the movie to really understand why he speaks of gold so conclusively as curse even though his own life shows otherwise.
The last time I watched the movie, at the very beginning I noticed some small clues into one of the two future members of Curtin’s team, that show greed and hypocrisy. I can’t say which one because they are hidden so well keeping the story always suspenseful, not knowing if any of the characters will turn on the others. What I can say is that Curtin noticed those characteristics of his prospective partner long before a first-time viewer can. That’s why he discourages both men from joining him. He knows that greed will take over and put everybody else involved at great risk.
We watch the character’s downfall very gradually. As we watch it happen, we are confronted with the question of how we as individuals would respond to a sudden opportunity for wealth. As we watch carefully multiple times to see the attitudes and beliefs of the character before his downfall, we can ask ourselves if we are in any way predisposed to the likely response to wealth that we see in this character. This kind of self-understanding in the end has nothing at all to do with wealth but everything to do with how we view others and ourselves. Are we living for the good of others or only for our own self-interest? Whether the character in the movie gained wealth or not, his greed would have eventually overtaken him. The questions that the movie forces us to ask about ourselves are then really about how we relate to others and how we relate to and use the money and resources we already have. The other characters in the movie find contentment both with and without treasure but we know that the character who becomes controlled by greed will never reach the satisfaction he searches for through the whole movie. This principle makes the way for one of the most intense, thought-provoking, and entertaining movies of all time. It also is a principle that is unquestionably true for all people, giving us something to think about that is crucial for us all to process as it relates to our own lives.