Home > Reviews > THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE – Max Steiner


December 5, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

treasureofthesierramadreMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Writer-Director John Huston saw an opportunity with the novel Treasure of Sierra Madre (1935) by B. Traven to bring a timeless tale to the big screen. He convinced Warner Brothers studio executives of his vision and purchased the film rights for $6,500 from the reclusive author. He himself wrote the screenplay and he secured a first class cast for the project, which included; Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs, Walter Huston as Howard, Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, Bruce Bennett as James Cody, Barton MacLane as Pat McCormick, Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat, and Arturo Soto Rangel as El Presidente. The theme of the story is as old as time itself – a study in human greed explored through the lives of three gold prospectors.

The story is set in the Mexican oil town of Tampico circa 1925. Two prospectors are down on the luck and by chance run into Fred, an old prospector who has just won a small lottery. The three resolve to join forces and use the money to finance a gold prospecting expedition to the remote Sierra Madre Mountains. After some hardship Howard discovers gold and they dig a mine. They are with hard work able to extract a very significant amount of gold, enough to give all three a fine life. But things go south quickly as an increasingly paranoiac Fred becomes convinced that Howard and Bob are going to kill him and take his portion. As Fred descends into madness, seeds of greed and distrust are sown, which ultimately leads to their ruin. One day Fred sees his chance when Howard is in town and shoots Bob, mortally wounding him. He leaves him for dead and absconds with all the gold, only to be later bushwhacked by bandits. The tragedy continues as the bandits take the mules, but dump the sacks of gold believing them filled with sand. The bandits head into town to sell the donkeys in town, but the mules are recognized. They are arrested, forced to dig their own graves and executed. After Bob recovers from his wounds the two men journey to the site where Fred was killed only to find that the gold dust has been scattered in the winds, lost forever. Both men accept the cards they have been dealt and part ways hoping to start a new life. The film did not perform well at the box office, although over time has become very popular. It did garner significant critical acclaim however, earning four Academy Award Nominations including; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, winning three for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

Steiner understood that given the setting in Mexico he would have to infuse his soundscape with Mexican auras. To that end he brought in guitar, marimbas, accordion, xylophone, Mexican drums and shakers, saxophone, harmonica and five mandolins. For his primary themes we have five, which carry the score, including the Trek Theme, the score’s primary and most memorable theme. It offers a happy go lucky, unaffected and free spirited piece, which makes you smile as it carries you away with its infectious cadence. The theme permeates the score and animates our adventure, fully capturing the men’s aspirations. The Mountain Theme offers the score’s most dramatic and powerful theme. It articulates with bravado Spanish colors and rhythms, which support repeating dramatic horn declarations. The Bandits Theme has a vigorous kinetic drive full of Spanish machismo. It is carried by driving percussive rhythms, horns bellicoso and strings furioso, which perfectly captures the menace and ruthlessness of the bandits. The Texas Memory Theme by contrast offers classic Steiner lyricism with tender mandolins that carry us tenderly on its carefree dance-like rhythms. Lastly, we have the Gold Theme. Given the film’s narrative, Steiner understood that he needed to speak to the shimmering beauty and allure of gold, which animates the adventure, but also leads the men to ruin. He created a refulgent theme, which shimmers with a mesmerizing, twinkling confluence of suspended cymbals, bells, harps, glockenspiel, triangle pianos, and vibraphones.

The “Main Title” opens the film with dramatic power and offers a score highlight where Steiner displays three of his primary themes, which support the roll of the opening credits. This film version of the main title forgoes Steiner’s classic Warner Brothers fanfare, instead launching the film atop a powerful statement of the Mountain Theme. At 0:20 we segue into the Bandits Theme, from which it contests in dramatic interplay with the Mountain Theme. We close with the resplendent mesmerizing twinkling of the Gold Theme. What a dramatic way to open the film. In “El Desayuno” Fred is down on his luck and buys a lottery ticket with his last peso. He then resorts to begging and is given more pesos by a wealthy American. Steiner captures the Mexican ambiance by providing a source song composed by Spanish composer Alfonso Sanchez, which supports his hair cut and ‘good fortune’. It is a spirited piece, full of life, which bathes us in classic Spanish auras. Later Fred and Bob sign up as laborers, building oilrigs, only to be stiffed of their wages. They later meet Howard in a flophouse for the down and out. Well fortune strikes and Fred wins the lottery, so the three pool their resources and decide to go prospecting.

In “Attack On The Train” they board a train that will take them to the remote Sierra Madre Mountains. On the way bandits attack the train and the three successfully defend it with their pistols. Steiner offers a kinetic action piece full of drama and excitement, where he whips his orchestra in to frenzy, propelling the fight with the Bandits Theme! “The Journey Commences” reveal the men buying their pack mules and provisions, set to begin their expedition. We open powerfully with repeated horn declarations of the Mountain Theme. As we see them traveling Steiner introduces the Trek Theme, which he renders in different forms to support their progress. When Fred sees a glistening rock he feels he has found gold. The shimmering Gold Theme supports his finding, but dissipates as Howard informs them that it is ‘fools gold’. As they push on in “Windstorm” they are lashed by sand whipped winds. Steiner supports the scene with eerie string figures, harp glissandi and wind sounds. The Trek Theme enters in a scene change to support them hacking their way through a jungle.

In “Campfire” the men have supper and Howard provides the source song “Those Endearing Young Charms” on solo harmonica. Next day we segue into “Up There”, one of the score’s finest cues where we are treated to superb interplay of the Mountain, Trek, and Gold Themes. The men at last find gold and the intersection of these themes expertly support the film’s narrative. A crescendo at 1:35 informs us of a sluice, which washes away the dirt from the gold. At 2:08 the shimmering Gold Theme informs us of the first seeds of distrust, which surface as the amount of gold grows. The next day we see Fred fiercely spiking the mine walls, which Steiner supports dramatically at 2:48 atop a powerful deafening crescendo. At 3:19 tremolo strings and a crashing orchestral descent support the collapse of the mine on Fred. We conclude with a heroic rendering of the Trek Theme as Bob rescues Fred from the mine. “Texas Memories” reveals Bob and Howard talking of what they intend to do with their money. As Bob envisions himself a Texan peach farmer Steiner baths us with his wistful Texas Memory Theme, whose tender mandolins carry us tenderly on its carefree dance-like rhythms.

In “Night – Distrust” Steiner sows tension and unease with disquieting strings and woodwinds, and a dark rendering of the Trek Theme as an increasingly paranoid Fred seeks out Howard who has left the tent. When Bob later leaves Fred becomes agitated, believing that his gold is being stolen. This is supported by a corrupted variant of the Trek Theme, an externalization of Fred’s psyche. At 2:34 Fred is descending into paranoiac madness in “Gila Monster”. He believes they are trying to kill him and so turns his gun on Bob when he sees him prying open his gold vault. A dark rendering of the Trek Theme and grim bassoons underpin Bob’s assertion that a Gila Monster had moved into the vault where Fred hid his gold. As he and Howard disarm Fred, pry open the vault and kill the Gila monster Fred realizes his error and walks away devastated. At 3:47 we conclude on festive Spanish rhythms, which support Bob meeting Cody and his departure back to camp.

Cody has followed Bob back to camp and discovered their purpose. The three decide to kill him, but stop when he alerts them to a party of bandits riding towards them. They decide to collectively stand and fight. This next tertiary cue offers perhaps the score’s most powerful action writing. In “Bandits” Steiner sows menace with grim piano strikes, horns of doom, and dire woodwinds, which build atop a percussive pulse. We bear witness to an astounding crescendo of power that culminates with a gong strike as the bandits arrive. After a parlay with them fails all hell breaks loose at 3:04 in “Outnumbered” where we see the Bandit’s Theme build to crescendo and then engage in fierce combative interplay with defiant declarations of the Mountain Theme that is joined with a martial rendering of the Trek Theme. After an interlude respite we conclude at 5:44 atop trilling woods with “Federales” as the bandits flee and are seen being pursued by federal troops. The Bandit’s Theme dominates with galloping percussion and rousing trumpet fanfare and snare drum percussion, which supports the pursuing Mexican troops.

The next two cues offer perhaps the scores most tender moments. In “Cody’s Letter” they find he has been shot dead and in going through his possessions find a letter from his wife, which Bob reads. Her heartfelt words of love move the men and Steiner supports the reading with string-laden heartache of regret. At 2:02 we segue into “Texas Memories” where a reprise of the Texas Memory Theme concludes the reading of the letter. In “Packing Up” the men believe with $35,000 of gold each they have enough to count their blessings, and leave the mountain. The Mountain Theme sparkles and is joined by the Trek Theme, which carries their departure. After a brief interlude a harmonica takes up the Trek Theme as they sit around the campfire. At 2:04 we segue into “Indian Visitors” atop nativist drums as Mexican peasants join them at the campsite. The men are wary but hospitable. Eventually the peasants ask that they come and attend to a boy who may have drowned. Howard agrees and leaves with the peasants. “Funeral Chant” offers Steiner’s subtle yet evocative support of the film’s narrative. It reveals Howard trying to resuscitate the comatose boy and eventually succeeding. Howard’s efforts for this poignant scene are supported simply by a plaintive wordless choir, which becomes refulgent when the boy wakes.

In “Unwilling Caretakers” the towns people overtake the men and insist that Howard return with them, as their faith requires that they honor him. Howard agrees and entrust Fred and Bob with his portion of the gold. As Howard departs the Trek Theme carries his progress. As we see Fred and Bob traveling together, Steiner sows tension with malignant swirling strings as we see a paranoiac Fred slowly descending into madness. The Trek Theme darkens and is buttressed by foreboding string phrases as Bob is forced to disarm Fred after he threatens to take Howard’s gold and kill Bob. “Madness” reveals Fred’s descent into madness as he grabs Bob’s gun when he falls asleep. He then shoots him, leaves him for dead, and takes off with all three shares of gold. After he has shot Bob, Fred lies next to the fire and raves against its flames as the Gold Theme shimmers. Steiner supports the grim scene with a formless milieu of swirling strings agitato, which achieves a horrific crescendo as the flames fill the screen. At 2:18 we change scenes and see peasants discover the mortally wounded Bob who has crawled away from Fred. Plaintive strings support his escape and rescue. At 2:42 horn blasts, writhing strings and ugly dissonance support Fred’s discovery that Bob’s body is missing. He revels that a tiger has eaten him, sparing his need to bury the evidence. The marriage of Fred’s on screen madness and Steiner’s score is perfection.

In “Narange Dolce” Steiner offers source music, which supports Howard being lavishly attended to like a king by the town’s folk. His respite is ended when the men bring him to Bob. He tends to his wounds and decides that they need to pursue Fred and bring him to justice. “After Dobbs” reveals that Howard and Bob have set off in pursuit of Fred with the town’s men joining. Fanfare from the Mountain Theme carries their progress. At 0:20 a scene shit to “The Man In A Hole” reveals a weary Fred struggling in the heat. A weary Trek Theme supports his walking. At 0:42 he discovers a water hole and runs for its waters, which is supported by a crescendo and dire horns, which portend his doom. Strings of dread inform us that bandits have surrounded him. Steiner sows and stokes a rising tension as Fred struggles to talk his way out of the situation. In desperation he draws his gun, but it is empty. At 3:06 they murder him with sharp machete blows. The Bandit Theme carries their flight with the mules into town, with a diminuendo upon the Gold Theme. We launch at 4:53 into “Arrested” with a percussive Bandit Theme as the bandits are arrested after a boy recognizes the mules and alerts the authorities. We conclude on the Trek Theme as Howard and Bob arrive in town.

In “The Ruins” Howard is informed that Fred has been murdered and their goods are safe. But they discover that the gold bags are missing. A boy tells them that the bags may be found at the ruins outside of town. They ride forth atop the Mountain Theme, only to encounter a fierce windstorm. The dissonant rendering of the shimmering Gold Theme supports the gold dust being blown away in the torrents of wind. When they find the empty bags an orchestral descent informs us of their resignation. They accept their fate with unrestrained laughter and decide to part ways. In “Texas Memories” Howard decides to go back to the Mexican town, which honored him, and Bob decides to return to Texas for the peach harvest and to speak to Cody’s widow. The Texas Memories Theme supports their decisions. “Finale” reveals the men departing to their respective destines, supported a last time by a fine rendering of the Trek Theme, joined by a mysterioso statement of the Gold Theme, ending as we began with a final declaration of the Mountain Theme fanfare. The “End Cast” supports the end credits, which are carried by a reprise of “El Desayuno”

The three final cues are bonus cues, worthy of your exploration. “Theatrical Trailer” was actually written by Steiner to promote the film. It provides a wonderful listen with a parade of all of Steiner’s primary themes. “Alternative Main Title” offers an alternative that differs from the film version in that it opens with Steiner’s usual Warner Brothers fanfare before launching into the Mountain Theme. I actually like this version better. Lastly, we have “Alternative Finale”, which uses statements of “El Desayuno” and then a swelling Trek Theme to close the film.

I appreciate this release, and special thanks should go to John Morgan for his superb restoration of this classic Steiner score, as well as William Stromberg whose skillful baton brought Steiner’s music to life. The sound quality as with all Morgan and Stromberg projects was pristine and of the highest quality. Steiner wrote big for this film and some film critics have criticized it as being too intrusive. I agree that the score is indeed very prominent, however rather than finding it intrusive, I found it enhancing. The five themes he created all served vital film needs, the need for adventure, camaraderie, wistful reminiscence, banditry, and most of all the mesmerizing allure of gold. The interplay and intersection of these themes was superb and affirms Steiner’s mastery of his craft. I believe this to be one of his finest scores, a classic Golden Age gem, and one that I highly recommend for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link to the amazing Main Title; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1L1XZZpBoM

Buy the Treasure of the Sierra Madre soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:48)
  • El Desayuno (written by Alfonso Sanchez) (1:59)
  • Attack on the Train (1:39)
  • The Journey Commences (3:29)
  • Windstorm (1:28)
  • Campfire/Up There/ Water Trough/Gold Digging/Cave In/Rescue (5:25)
  • Texas Memories (1:06)
  • Night/Distrust/Gila Monster (1:06)
  • Bandits/Outnumbered/Federales (7:01)
  • Cody’s Letter/Texas Memories (3:07)
  • Packing Up/Indian Visitors (2:25)
  • Funeral Chant (3:12)
  • Unwilling Caretakers (2:20)
  • Madness (3:37)
  • Narange Dolce (1:26)
  • After Dobbs/The Man in a Hole/Arrested (5:42)
  • The Ruins (2:04)
  • Texas Memories/Finale (1:32)
  • End Cast (0:22)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:38) [BONUS]
  • Alternative Main Title (1:47) [BONUS]
  • Alternative Finale (1:22) [BONUS]

Running Time: 60 minutes 05 seconds

Marco Polo 8225149 (1948/2001)

Music composed by Max Steiner. Conducted by William Stromberg.
Performed by The Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus featuring Dino Soldo. Original orchestrations by Murray Cutter. Recorded and mixed by XXX. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by William Stromberg and John Morgan.

  1. Peter
    March 17, 2021 at 9:05 pm

    What about composer Hubert Parry, whose themes are pervade “Treasure?”

  2. Peter
    March 17, 2021 at 9:05 pm

    What about composer Hubert Parry, whose themes are pervade “Treasure?”

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