The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This masterful tale of greed and jealousy has echoes in Revenge of the Sith.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a 1948 film of cultural and historical significance that won two Oscars for its writer/director, John Huston, a titan of cinema and the man behind many of Humphrey Bogart’s best movies. His movies were so influential as a whole that it would easy to look at them all and say that they influenced all cinema, including Star Wars, that came after them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is no exception.

And it could only be made by a filmmaker of John Huston’s caliber. He’s the same master that once called George Lucas (and Steven Spielberg, in the same statement) “inventive as hell… he’s an ordinary man with an extraordinary expression.”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tells the story of a trio of prospectors working to strike it rich, hoping to find gold in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. It would be easy to dismiss this as having nothing to do with Star Wars and anyone to call anyone who read it as an influence to the saga as crazy, but I’m here to say, “Not so fast.”

If you watch the beginning of the film, you might see a parallel between Walter Huston’s character, Howard, and Dexter Jettster. After all, he is the only character in Star Wars who mentions anything about prospecting, and he certainly has the same congenial attitude, knowledge about everything, wide smile, and easy laugh.

And if you were merely scratching the surface of the film, you might see resemblances in locations. Mos Eisley could easily be seen as a double for Tampico, Mexico. After a barroom brawl, one of the characters even offers a bartender a tip for leaving a battered man on the floor after the fight, a move that Han Solo mimics after frying “poor Greedo like that.”

But I think the strongest influence The Treasure of the Sierra Madre might have had on Star Wars comes in the form of Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart plays what could be construed as both the film’s hero and villain, a down on his luck American named Fred C. Dobbs whose greed is ultimately his undoing.

Bogart provided bits of inspiration as the unlikely hero for Han Solo in films like Casablanca, but none of that is on display here. Instead, he plays a man unhinged by his own greed and jealousy as his actions to prevent a thing from happening are what inevitably cause that thing to happen. The film is beautifully bathed in irony that would seem to serve as the basis for Anakin’s actions through Revenge of the Sith. His willingness to do anything to prevent Padmé’s death is the one thing that hastens it.

The other characters are much more sane and grounded. They are told throughout the picture that any gold they might leave with would be a bonus in their lives, rather than the point of their existence. They forgo the attachment to wealth and power the gold brings and they have an easier time letting go of their lost fortune. While the gold they worked long and hard to collect blows away in the dust — transforming into the Force, if you will — they look on, laughing as though they’ve lost nothing. Truly, they could have been inspirations for Yoda’s advice of learning to let go of the things they feared to lose.

Bogart’s character, though, can do no such thing. He even tries to kill one of his partners and leaves him for dead, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi did to Anakin on Mustafar. He believes that he’s dealt with the problem once and for all, but finds he’s created an even larger problem for himself.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a tense film with a style of acting that should be easily recognizable by fans of Star Wars, since it’s so clearly an artifact of a bygone era. But the film is beautiful in its construction and the ironic nature of the ending leaves one feeling much the same way we’re meant to at the end of Revenge of the Sith. It’s also difficult watching Humphrey Bogart make such terrible decisions in the face of rationality, echoing Anakin’s choices in the final installment of the prequel trilogy.

The film is generally rated PG around the world and it’s safe to watch with any kid who can handle a little bit of insanity and murder. It’s a wonderful film that younger kids might not have the patience for, but if you’ve introduced classic films to the older kids, they’ll find a lot to love in this one, as will you.

Availability: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and some streaming services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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