“Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” Who said one of the most famous lines in film history? As it turns out, nobody.
Several of the best people in Hollywood grew, noticeably, during their years away, at war; the man who grew most impressively, I thought, as an artist, as a man, in intelligence, in intransigence, and in an ability to put through fine work against difficult odds, was John Huston, whose San Pietro and Let There Be Light were full of evidence of this many-sided growth. I therefore looked forward with the greatest eagerness to the work he would do after the war.
His first movie since the war has been a long time coming, but it was certainly worth waiting for. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is Huston’s adaptation of B. Traven’s novel of the same title. It is not quite a completely satisfying picture, but on the strength of it I have no doubt at all that Huston, next only to Chaplin, is the most talented man working in American pictures, and that this is one of the movie talents in the world which is most excitingly capable of still further growth. The Treasure is one of very few movies made since 1927 which I am sure will stand up in the memory and esteem of qualified people alongside the best of the silent movies. And yet I doubt that many people will fully realize, right away, what a sensational achievement, or plexus of achievement, it is. You will seldom see a good artist insist less on his artistry; Huston merely tells his story so straight and so well that one tends to become absorbed purely in that; and the story itself—a beauty—is not a kind which most educated people value nearly enough, today.
This story and Huston’s whole handling of it are about as near to folk art as a highly conscious artist can get; both also approach the global appeal, to the most and least sophisticated members of an audience, which the best poetic drama and nearly all the best movies have in common. Nominally an adventure story, this is really an exploration of character as revealed in vivid action; and character and action yield revelations of their own, political, metaphysical, moral, above all, poetic. The story unfolds so pleasurably on the screen that I will tell as little as possible of it here. Three American bums of the early 1920’s (Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt) run into lottery luck in Tampico and strike into the godforsaken mountains of Mexico in search of gold. The rest of the story merely demonstrates the development of their characters in relation to hardship and hard work, to the deeply primitive world these modern primitives are set against, to the gold they find, and to each other. It is basically a tragic story and at times a sickeningly harsh one; most of it is told as cheerfully brutal sardonic comedy.
This may be enough to suggest how rich the story is in themes, semi-symbols, possible implications, and potentialities as a movie. Huston’s most wonderful single achievement is that he focuses all these elements as simply as rays in a burning glass: all you see, unless you look sharp, is a story told so truly and masterfully that I suspect the picture’s best audience is the kind of men the picture is about, who will see it only by chance.