Who Is Civilized?

by Gabriel Urbina


The film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides an excellent illustration of the literary theme of Civilization and Barbarism.

B. Traven is the pen name of the author of the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, published in German in 1927; and the English version published in 1935. The American film classic with the same title was made in 1948.

Little is known about this author. His identity is really unknown; there are numerous theories about who he was, but nothing definite has been established. The only certain fact about Traven is that he lived in Mexico for about forty years.

Traven was a writer ahead of his time, because he wrote about topics that were of no interest at the time, but these topics would become very relevant later on. He wrote about European and American imperialism, colonialism, oppression, exploitation, and the treatment of minorities. He was also ahead of his time because he utilizes one of the most important literary themes of Latin American literature: Civilization and Barbarism, which appears for the first time in the novel Facundo: Civilizacion y Barbarie, published in 1845, written by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would later become president of Argentina.

Civilization, in Sarmiento's view, encompasses modern ideas and progress and resides in the city. Barbarism rest with the gauchos and the vast countryside. But barbarism can take over a civilized city. A brutal dictator by the name of Rozas conquers Buenos Aires, through violence, fear, and terror. He is a barbarian who operates in the midst of civilization.

The film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides an excellent illustration of the theme Civilization and Barbarism. Traven's book, and John Huston's film version offer a different utilization of the theme.

The movie begins in Tampico, Mexico, a coastal town that is the center of an oil boom, attracting Americans, Mexicans, and Mexican Indians alike. The town is surrounded by poverty, with many marginalized people. Among these, there are three Americans, Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard who are barely surviving in Tampico. They cannot even work at the most menial tasks, which are reserved for the locals.

The three protagonists are recruited by Pat McCormick, who is a contractor for the oil company, rigging derricks. He makes more money by having people working for excessively long hours, in order to finish a particular job sooner; thus maximizing his profit margin. He robs his workers of their wages, and he promises bonuses he does not intend to pay. Dobbs and Curtin have a big bar fight with McCormick; they win the fight, and they take their wages out of his wallet. There is more money in it, but they only take what they consider fair.

At the Oso Negro, an extremely overcrowded hotel, they meet Howard, and older man, with experience in gold prospecting. They pool their wages and a small lottery price won by Dobbs, in order to finance their search for gold. Howard will provide his expertise as an old gold prospector.

On their way to the Sierra Madre they stop by a small village inhabited by honest people, who have a sense of fairness and justice. The three Americans buy their supplies, tools and burros there.

They are successful in finding gold. Once they have accumulated enough riches, they start their journey back to Tampico, but Howard leaves his share with Dobbs and Curtin, when a group of Indians, who seem to know him as a healer, ask him for his help to revive a comatose child. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) consumed by greed tries to kill Curtin (Tim Holt) but he is able to crawl his way to where the Indians and Howard are. Dobbs comes in possession of all the gold, but, now all alone, is killed by Mexican bandits, who rob him of his clothes, his shoes and all the burros. They think the gold is nothing but sand, and they let it be blown away by the wind. They try to sell the burros back to the people in the small village, but the mayor determine the burros are stolen, and the bandits are executed.

The theme of Civilization and Barbarism is presented both by the three main characters and the different settings of the film.

Dobbs, consumed by greed, becomes a barbarian. Curtin is a civilized person, who can distinguish right from wrong, even in the middle of the wilderness. He recovers from his wounds, and eventually returns to the United States.

The highest level of civilization is reserved for Howard. He is a healer and a wise old man, who knows himself and human nature very well. Howard does not return to Tampico, but stays to live with the Indians, who are also very polite, very civilized.

The barbarians are not confined to the desolate landscape and the wilderness; they are also present in the city. One setting has the Mexican bandits; the other have people like McCormick, a corrupt, uncaring, unethical individual, who exploits and abuses others.

The film, through its settings, moves from Tampico, where people live in crowded conditions, and whose life is controlled by others, to be small village where honest people are in control, and, finally to the Indian community, where Howard finds his personal paradise.

In this film is very clear who is a barbarian; but leaves the viewer to reflect on two questions:Who is really civilized? What constitutes a civilized society?

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