Most of us are familiar with the movie version, a certified classic and one of a number of terrific collaborations between John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Huston and his father Walter, who played the old prospector Howard, were both awarded Oscars. Bogart lost out to Lawrence Olivier.
Few people have any idea of the identity of the author of the book was on which the movie was based. His identity has been called“one of the greatest literary mysteries of the twentieth century.” (Eat your heart out J.D. Salinger) According to one biography (or “anti-autobiography”), B. Travern “took great effort throughout his life to avoid any cult of personality or role of fame. Travern was only a name, one of many he used in his life: Otto Feige, Ret Marut, Torsvan….” Reportedly, when John Huston contacted Travern in Mexico City to seek his collaboration on the film, a man named Hal Croves, who purported to be his agent, arrived on the set. Huston was convinced the man was Travern himself, but Travern, who was denied citizenship in the U.S. in part because of his Socialist leanings, had every reason to keep his identity secret, especially given the anti-capitalist subtext of the novel.
“But whatever the truth of his identity, [his] books continue to be enjoyed and to inspire—a rare case of literary expression being of equal quality to its radical political content. To judge him only in literary terms is to miss the point; nevertheless, unlike much literature attempting to convey a political ‘message’, Travern is a pleasure to read. B. Travern was a great storyteller and also—that great rarity—a great political novelist.”
The story is straight-forward. Two down and out Americans wind up in a cheap Mexican hostel where the residents are being beguiled by the prospecting success stories of Howard (Walter Huston. Link to the monologue on YouTube here.) Howard sets the tone for what is to come when he declares that the lust for gold is the undoing of anyone who falls under its spell. The character of Howard has been described as crazy by some critics, but his rambling stories are a link to the novel’s underlying message: the lure of gold blinds men to everything, including the real treasure that lies before them, the beauty and complexity of the indigenous cultures which inconveniently occupy the land where the gold lies. In the case of the Sierra Madre he indigenous people are the Tarámuri, but you could just as easily substitute the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, English settlers and Native American culture, western expansion and Native American culture, or anyplace else a native culture has been wiped out in the name of “civilization” and “progress,” and the outcome would be much the same.
Travern is often heavy-handed with this message; the tribesmen have a tendency to harangue the foolish gringos over their intemperate love for gold and constant hurrying, which make them little more than mouthpieces for the author’s message. But the sublime irony of what befalls the three prospectors is what distinguishes this story. After hacking their way through the wilds of the Sierra Madre and finally locating a rich seam of gold high up in the mountains, the two Americans succumb to the fever and to paranoia about their stakes. The old prospector Howard is taken in by a nearby village as a shaman, while Dobbs and Curtin engage in a deadly cat and mouse game that nearly costs Curtin his life. Dobbs gets away with the loot but he is waylaid by outlaws as he draws near civilization. The outlaws, those of the “We don’t need no steenking badge” renown, murder Dobbs and discard the gold dust which they think is ballast to increase the weight of the moldy skins the prospectors are carrying to add to their cover as trappers (not prospectors).
“What lies beneath this basic plot is what makes Treasure so revolutionary, even subversive. In addition to its suspense, he novel has something else that most Westerns lack: a subtext that scathingly rebukes capitalism and greed. In the standard romantic Western, striking gold is the best thing that can happen to a character; the payoff at the end of a long journey. In Traven’s work, it’s the worst imaginable outcome.”
- Quotation attributed to Paul Theroux
- The Anti-biography of B. Travern, by Red Marriot. Accessed on libcom.org
- “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” by Ethan Trex, mental_floss magazine, Nov-Dec, 2011
- In the Sierra Madre, by Jeff Biggers. Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2006