By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Anatomy of a Masterpiece
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite movie; probably seen it more than thirty times. It is, of course, considered one of the finest films ever made. But thirty times?! Obviously, there must be something about it that strums almost every string on my inner guitar.
For those unfamiliar with the picture, the story is a simple one: three down-at-the-heels gringos go prospecting in 1925 for gold in the arid, bandit-infested mountains around Durango, Mexico. It is a grim tale about the corrosive effect of gold, and ends with the disintegration and ultimate death of its main character; not exactly musical comedy, huh? So why my fixation with the picture?
First, the story takes place in Mexico, which for many of my generation of writers possesses the mystique that Paris must have had for earlier writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Scott Fitzgerald. Mexico has always seemed a place where all things are possible, and very little is ever forgotten; where everything and everybody seems much more vivid, a Technicolor country in a world filled with monochrome places and people. For me, Mexico has always been, (this, the ultimate compliment), a John Huston picture, starring Humphrey Bogart—which is exactly what the Treasure was.
I have long been fascinated by that old saying that “life is what happens to us while we’re out making other plans.” In the movie, the two surviving prospectors, though they lose the gold, succeed in discovering something far more precious: the best and most decent part of their character.
This theme is in the prologue of B. Traven’s (Ojo editorial in October issue) novel upon which the film is based.
“The treasure you think not worth taking the trouble and pains to find, this one alone is the real treasure you are longing for all your life. The glittering treasure you are hunting for day and night lies buried on the other side of that hill yonder.”
Or, put another way: funny how life so often imitates art, for as we grow older, the fire of raw ambition slowly abates—and if we’re lucky, is replaced by courageous acceptance. Happiness, both the film and personal experience seem to suggest, comes not in attaining all those things you earlier so desperately felt you had to have, but rather in re-evaluating that which you always possessed, but never before appreciated.
Moreover, I found in the movie’s main characters no less than three “advisors” who have passed on a few invaluable lessons; and though one of the protagonists succumbs to greed and self-destructive paranoia, all three provided me with insights into my own character, the two survivors embodying principles which I have never forgotten, and occasionally even try to live by.
Those “counselors” have stayed with me for a lifetime. I have also occasionally thought about the ultimate destiny of the two characters left standing at the end of the movie—and surely one mark of a great story is that as it ends, in our imagination it has just begun.