My Two Favorite Huston Films: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) & The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Every great John Huston adventure begins with a handshake. My two favorite Huston films are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which strong, determined men embark on dangerous quests to find fortune and glory. Summing up the relationship between the two films in his book John Huston's Filmmaking, Professor Lesley Brill writes that "the themes at the center of The Man Who Would Be King... remain closely related to those of Treasure: the power of human attachments and sustaining communities and the obstacles to both; conflicts between relatively innocent native peoples and intruders from technologically developed societies; interactions between humans and an animated natural world; ambiguities of destiny and choice; the equivocal possibilities of heroism." And the quests themselves are not officially kicked off until the men do what they must do in order to set their sights in stone: shake hands on it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is about a shake of hands to find gold. "Why not try gold digging for a change?" Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) asks his friend Curtin (Tim Holt). "It ain't any riskier than waiting around here for a break; and this is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying for you to take them out of the ground--make them shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames." Dobbs and Curtin have just been cheated out of their rightful pay by the corrupt Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), and they are ready to try something new. They team up with Howard (Walter Huston), the grizzled old prospector who has experience in the gold-digging field, and then the deal is set. "Put her there, part!" says Dobbs, holding his hand out to Curtin. They shake on it, and then Huston's camera closes up on Howard as he looks upon their pact with a strange sense of uncertainty--almost as if he foresees the perils that are going to be awaiting them.
Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) in The Man Who Would Be King shake hands over a pact to become kings of an ancient empire, win the support of its people and then "loot the country four ways from Sunday." Their old plan to con the Raj of Degumber was foiled by a fellow Freemason, novelist Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer), who listens skeptically as Danny explains the new plan he and Peachy have layered out: "The less said about our professions, the better, for we have been most things in our time. We've been all over India--we know her cities, her jungles, her jails and her passes--and we have decided that she isn't big enough for such as we." "Therefore," continues Peachy, "we are going away to another place, where a man isn't crowded and can come into his own. We're not little men... so we're going away to be kings. Kings of Karifstan." Kipling thinks the whole idea is absurd, though he happily signs his signature on Danny and Peachy's "contract" to serve as witness to their agreement. Yet on the day of their departure, Kipling has second thoughts. "Man," he cries to Danny, "don't do it. The odds are too great." But Danny and Peachy remain fatefully committed to their cause. With regret and anxiety, Kipling shakes their hands goodbye.
Huston first opens these two films with scenes that tour the marketplaces where the heroes began and shook hands before embarking on their adventures. The first shot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is of a Spanish lottery bulletin, and Dobbs, looking upon it, crumbles up his own lottery ticket in disappointment. He didn't win. "Hey, mister," he asks random men on the street, "could you stake a fellow American to a meal?" A white-suited man, played by Huston himself, is approached at least three times: "Such impudence never came my way!" he complains to Dobbs, and though he is willing to give him two more pesos, the man declares that "from now on, you have to make your way through life without my assistance." This could possibly have been Huston's sly way of telling Bogart that he needed to start making movies without his constant help (they had been working together ever since Raoul Walsh's High Sierra in 1941--the same year in which Huston then directed The Maltese Falcon and thus made Bogart a star), but what I also like about this scene is that Huston is not condemning the life of poor people like Dobbs; he is fine with helping out people on the street, while at the same time realizing that one can only give away so much.
The fantastic, two-minute opening shots of The Man Who Would Be King display an Afghan marketplace that seems entirely composed of everyday Afghans working for a living. There are no rich, white-suited businessmen around these parts, and, except for a barber that may remind us of the barber whom Dobbs spends his second peso on in Treasure, there are no professions in this marketplace that we recognize from the earlier film; just blacksmiths, tambourine musicians, cobra charmers, men with scorpions crawling on their faces and children clutching snakes in their hands. Only in the evening does Huston take us behind closed doors and introduce us to at least one white man: Kipling, who is writing away in his studies until he is surprised by a maimed figure emerging from the shadows behind him. "I've come back," whispers the figure. It is Peachy, and the remainder of the movie will be narrated flashbacks of his and Danny's disastrous quest.
These openings each lead to the inevitable unlucky handshake, which is so key to Huston's sensibilities as a "beautiful losers" filmmaker. Though not all of his films (certainly not all of his best films) end unhappily, one of his most recognizable themes as an auteur was his penchant for stories of protagonists and antagonists who sweat, bleed and die for causes that end in ruin. From the moment the heroes in Treasure and King shake hands, the obstacles start piling up. Dobbs, Curtin and Howard are threatened even before they get up to the mountains, during an assault on their train after which the conductor sighs a relief that "not many passengers get killed"; and once in the mountains, Dobbs and Curtin are almost immediately seduced by the allures of a misleading stone of pyrite (giving new meaning to the term "fool's gold"). Danny and Peachy, meanwhile, are forced to imitate British officers in order to get past imperial guards blocking their way to Karifstan; and once inside the hills they must abandon their camels in order to cross an enormous river that originally looked only like "a little wavy blue line on the map."
Oh, and bandits. The Mexican thugs in Treasure are led by Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), whose often-misquoted "I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" tirade inadvertently exposes him as a fraud when he and his pack attempt to introduce themselves to Dobbs' group as the local police. The Afghan bandits in King are in some respects even more menacing because they never speak, and when they intrude in on Danny and Peachy's campfire we are unsure in figuring out if they are friends, or enemies. They observe Danny and Peachy's clothes, touch them and then hold them at gunpoint; only after Peachy surprises them by spitting explosive ammo into the fire are they able to kill each of the bandits one by one. To be sure, the bandits in Treasure are not as easily disposed of; and, as we later find out to our horrors, Gold Hat will be back.
The heroes in Treasure are lazy. "If I'd known what prospecting meant," croaks an exhausted Curtin, "I'd have stayed in Tampico and waited for another job to come up." Likewise, the heroes in King are ignorant of the basic facts of world history and how it contradicts the plans they've set for themselves. When Kipling informs Danny and Peachy that no white man has ever come out of the Afghan regions alive since Alexander, Peachy's response is terminally idiotic: "Alexander WHO?" And when we see each of the heroes in each of the films mistreating minorities, it's as if Huston is drawing out the crude Social Darwinism of B. Traven and Kipling's original characters (and at the very least out of Kipling himself, who was an acknowledged white supremist). Dobbs in Treasure, for example, is not above tossing a glass of water into the face of the innocent Mexican lottery boy (a young Robert Blake); and Peachy, in King, throws a fat Indian named "Mr. Clutterbury Das" out the window of a moving train for the sole purpose of taking advantage of an opportunity to acquaint himself with Kipling. They're all charismatic heroes in their own ways, but boy are they stupid white men.
Laughter plays a special role in both films. Sometimes laughter in a Huston film is condescending, as during Howard's infamous dance scene in which he teases a hotheaded Dobbs and Curtin as "dumber than the dumbest jackass"; or when Peachy reacts to Danny's ridiculous notion that he was destined to be king of Karifstan: "Ha, ha! Pardon me while I fall down laughing!" Sometimes the laughter is scolded as inappropriate, as when native Mexican Indians in Treasure request that Howard, having healed one of their dying children, come to their camp to be blessed; Dobbs chuckles, but Howard reminds him that their request is serious, and not a laughing matter. Danny in King has a similar reaction when Peachy laughs during a Karifstan courtroom session in which a man is on trial for collecting dozens of goats from his wife's adulterers.
Most prominently, however, laughter in the two films is portrayed by Huston as a cathartic release. "Oh, laugh, Curtin, old boy!" Howard reassures his disappointed friend. "It's a great joke played on us by the lord of fate or nature, whatever you prefer, but whoever or whatever played it on us certainly has a sense of humor! Ha--the gold has gone back to where we found it!" If laughter, in Treasure, allows Howard and Curtin to move on with their lives, it is even more helpful in King when it literally helps Danny and Peachy to proceed during a crossroads in their quest; stranded in the snowy mountain pass, their echoing laughter over a filthy memory helps bring down the peaks and fill in the crevices separating them from the path forward.
I went into much detail over Huston's examination of capital punishment in his films in my piece on The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and I believe that in Treasure and King his views on the subject are most fully-realized. What makes Treasure such a scary experience is that we might initially sympathize with Dobbs, Howard and Curtin when they conspire to eliminate Cody (Bruce Bennet), a kind man who has happened on their site and asks if he would be allowed to join them. Dobbs is unfair to Cody, yells at him simply for making coffee, and then hits him. It is a very mean-spirited treatment of a man who means well--a man who sincerely thought he was "among friends".
And, I confess that when I first saw Treasure as a junior in high school, I was in agreement with Dobbs' decision to have Cody killed. Perhaps it was due to Dobbs' convincing argument that the group cannot keep recruiting more and more men to help them dig for gold they would rather keep for themselves. I'm disgusted with my original response, though I think it is also a testament to the power of Huston's film: he brings out the animalistic feelings of us, only to bring us to a shocked realization of our mistake shortly after Cody's death. Huston's critique of capital punishment is continued during the execution of the villainous Gold Hat at the end; by throwing in that witty moment in which Gold Hat demands to be allowed to put on his sombrero before being executed by the firing squad, Huston humanizes the film's villain. In a brief fleeting moment, Gold Hat is a person just like you and me.
Unlike Dobbs, Howard and Curtin, however, Danny and Peachy are morally opposed to capital punishment from the very beginning. Under the guidance of their chipper translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), Danny and Peachy are able to train the inexperienced army of the vile Ootah (Doghmi Larbi) into good soldiers, and they are so successful in the battles they wage against Ootah's enemies that, pretty soon, they have secured peace in Karifstan. But when Ootah tries to decapitate his prisoners of war, the Englishmen draw the line between themselves and their dubious commander-in-chief. "There'll be no execution of prisoners in this army," Danny declares. Still, when Ootah himself is slain by his own people and his head is turned into a soccer ball, that should have been the first signal to Danny and Peachy that they've taken control of a race of people with a different code of honor. The same goes for when they are forced by the holy men of Sikandergul (as Howard was by the Mexican Indians) to journey with them to the holy city so that the wise-man Kafu Selim (Karroom Ben Bouih) can determine whether or not Danny is really a god. These holy men are nothing short of hypocrites: they wish not to "see any badness" in the battles that Danny and Peachy have fought, and yet within the confines of their city they quickly attempt to kill Danny by stabbing, shooting and, finally, making him walk across a bridge while the ropes are cut. They claim to be pacifists even though they are just another city of executioners.
And what of women in the two films? Howard warns Dobbs and Curtin that "if I were you boys, I wouldn't talk or even think about women. It ain't good for your health." Still, Howard is not with sexual longings of his own. Listen to how he describes the panning of gold in the riverbed: "You got to know how to tickle her, so she'll come out laughing." And how he insists that once the gold mining is finished, they should restructure the mountain and patch up "her" wounds; as Curtin notes, Howard talks of the mountain as if she's a real woman. Danny and Peachy, meanwhile, abide strictly by a principle in their contract stating that they must ignore the temptations of the flesh while pursuing their goals of royalty, as to prevent needless distraction; and yet Danny is ultimately brought down by his love for a quiet woman, Roxanne (Shakira Caine, Michael's wife) who fears him. She, like everybody in the Afghan regions, believes that union between a god and mortal can only result in the mortal bursting into flames, and her arranged wedding to Danny in front of the priests of the holy city of Sikandergul is one of the film's most uncanny scenes. A suffocating bridesmaid is the first indication that something is wrong (it seems the holy god Imbra is angry not because Danny is marrying a mortal, but because Danny has lied to the priests about being a god), and then the kiss between Danny and Roxanne tears the entire thing apart. "The slut bit me!" he sputters, unaware that his bleeding cheek has given him away as the emperor with no clothes.
The fact is, both Fred C. Dobbs and Danny Dravot meet their ends because their imaginations run away with them. Throughout Treasure, we can sense that Dobbs is giving way to greed, particularly during one of the film's most brilliant sequences in which he rashly disbelieves Curtin's warning that the hiding spot for his bag of gold has been invaded by a stealthy gila monster. Even after Curtin rescues him from a collapsed mine, Dobbs is still untrustworthy of his partner; finally, in a later scene, he shoots Curtin, leaves him for dead in the woods, steals his gold and then allows his own mind to play tricks on him. "Conscience!" he hisses to himself. "What a thing. If you believe you've got a conscience, it'll pester you to death. But if you don't believe you've got one, what can it do to you? Makes me sick, all this talking and fussing about nonsense!" Danny in King becomes just as full of himself when he demands that Peachy worship him as a god like everyone else: "Whatever you may think, and however you may feel, I'm a king, and you're a subject!" It is disheartening to see Dobbs and Danny take these spellbinding paths down the road to self-destruction, but it is necessary in order to achieve Huston's unique drama. Their tragic demises are in some ways called for by the genres themselves; they're "done as if by order", to quote Dobbs' irrational suspicions that an absent tiger has taken care of his dirty work for him.
Both films have sad endings, but the heroes, in pure Hustonian fashion, do not regret a thing. They are happy with their memories, good and bad. Laughing still about the irony of all of their gold being whisked away by the winds back to the mountains, Howard adds, "This is worth ten months of suffering and labor, this joke is!" And soon Curtin gets it, too; he joins in the laughter. He and Howard may not be rich men, but the joke has allowed them to recover their strength: Howard will be fixed as the Mexican Indians' medicine man, and Curtin will go visit Cody's wife--possibly to participate in one of those fruit harvests he has always dreamed about. Danny and Peachy reach such climatic moments at least twice: first, when they are stranded in the mountains and they feel that hope is lost. "Peachy," Danny asks, "in your opinion, have our lives been misspent?" Peachy laughs off that notion with optimism: "I wouldn't change places with the viceroy himself if it meant giving up my memories!" And secondly, at the end, when Danny is about to be executed, he again asks Peachy for consolation: "Peachy, I'm heartedly ashamed for getting you killed instead of going home rich like you deserved to... on account of me being so bleedin' high and mighty. Can you ever forgive me?" "That I can, and that I do, Danny," Peachy nods, again with optimism. "Free and full without let or hindrance."
I love both of these films with all my heart. They changed my life. They helped me look at troubling themes like greed, prejudice, religion and morality, and they allowed me to be at peace with all of those themes. Whenever I'm asked if John Huston was an auteur, I turn them to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King. Here are two films about adventures that each begin with a handshake, and end in bittersweet victory. And what's left is a collection of unforgettable moments in classic American cinema that have granted me with memories I would not have given up for the world.