HERO'S JOURNEY: The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)
In this ongoing series, I give a basic breakdown of a film plot, as seen through the eyes of a screenwriter, and its use (conscious, or not) of a classic story structure that has its roots in the myths of ancient times. By seeing how different physical and emotional plot points play out in movies, writers can perhaps better understand how to map their own stories. It’s not a formula for storytelling; you can’t just add water and stir; but it can be helpful as a guide.
For greater insight into the building blocks of the Hero’s Journey paradigm, I recommend reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
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Director/ Writer: John Huston (winner of the Academy Award for both)
Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) is a down-on-his-luck drifter, playing the lottery and begging for money He meets and befriends another drifter, Curtin (Tim Holt). The two work on an oil rig job together but get stiffed out of their wages by a crooked boss.
CALL TO ADVENTURE: Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard (Walter Huston) (MENTOR), an old-timer who’s filled with stories about gold prospecting. He ruminates on the way greed for gold can consume a man, but Dobbs swears it would never have that effect on him. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL)
Dobbs and Curtin take revenge on their crooked boss and steal from him the wages he owes them. When Dobbs ALSO wins a small local lottery, he and Curtin now have enough money to finance a gold dig, and with the help of Howard, they head out into the wilds.
FRIENDS, ENEMIES AND ALLIES
On the train ride out to the gold fields, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard come under attack by a gang of Mexican bandits led by ‘Gold Hat’ (Alfonso Bedoya) (OUTER-CIRCLE ANTAGONIST). They beat off the attack, but Gold Hat lives to fight another day.
Dobbs can’t take the hardship of the desert and wants to quit. Despite the moaning and groaning, Howard eventually finds gold for them and they set up a successful gold dig.
It’s not long before Dobbs’ insecurities set in. His earlier claim that he would never get ‘gold fever’ is shown to be a lie. He’s the most paranoid of the bunch, causing the
otherwise level-headed Curtin to be on guard, too.
MID-POINT: While shopping for supplies in a nearby town, Curtin runs into Cody (Bruce
Bennett), a prospector who’s eager for gold news and suspects Curtin knows more than he’s saying. Cody follows Curtin back to his camp and confronts Dobbs and Howard, who must decide whether to kill him or include him in their hunt for gold.
Dobbs, Curtin and Howard decide to kill Cody but are forced to work with him to fend off an attack by Gold Hat and his bandits. The Federales eventually chase off the bandits, but Cody’s been killed in the fight. In his pocket, Curtin finds and reads a letter from Cody’s wife. It talks about how love and family are more important than riches. The thematic message in the letter seems to convince Dobbs to be satisfied with the gold they have, so the threesome pack up and leave the mine behind.
Local Indians beseech them to help save the life of a young boy who is unconscious after nearly drowning in a river. Dobbs, more worried about his gold then Indians, refuses but Howard (MENTOR) agrees to go with them to help, leaving Dobbs and Curtin to take his gold to town for him.
LOWEST POINT: Left with the old man’s gold, Dobbs gold fever returns ten-fold. He wants to steal it and run, but Curtin refuses. Dobbs shoots him and leaves him for dead, taking all the gold for himself. Clearly Dobbs is the INNER-CIRCLE ANTAGONIST, and if things go as the audience expects, he’ll meet a tragic end. But how?
Curtin drags himself to the Indian village, informs Howard of what’s happened and the
two of them head out to find Dobbs.
Dobbs is within sight of the town where he can sell the gold and get the riches he wants so badly, but at a watering hole he’s found and killed by Gold Hat and his men. (Bogart is dead?! Whaaat?!)
Gold Hat and his gang steal Dobb’s donkeys, who are carrying piles of animal skins to hide the bags of gold. For some inexplicable reason, Gold Hat empties and discards the bags of gold. It’s a B/W movie, so it’s hard to tell when what’s inside the bags hits the dirt whether it’s gold or sand, but if it’s not gold, where is the gold?
Anyway, they seem more interested in selling the donkeys and animals skins in town, but they’re discovered for the bandits they are and executed swiftly.
CLIMAX: Curtin and Howard arrive, eager for news of what happened to the bags that their donkeys were carrying. They rush off to a spot outside of town where the locals say they saw some bags on the ground, but when they get there, whatever was inside them is gone, swept away by a windstorm, back to the earth from which it came.
DENOUEMENT: At first distraught, Howard and Curtin laugh at the irony After all that effort, paranoia and death they end up with no gold. So what will they do now?
After curing the drowned boy earlier, Howard’s now revered as a healer by the local Indians and has been invited to live with them. Howard encourages Curtin to go find Cody’s wife and bring her news of her husband. Maybe she can give him work on the fruit farms she owns. Since owning a fruit farm has been a long-time dream of Curtin’s, he likes that idea.
With the thematic message that love and family is far more important than the destructive power of greed, Curtin and Howard wave their goodbyes and go their separate ways.