“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” is probably one of the great misquotes in movie history, along with “Play it again, Sam” and “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more”, and perhaps all most people know about John Huston’s second great film (after The Maltese Falcon with just a few, forgotten features and a war between them).
The story is this: Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt (Stagecoach, Swiss Family Robinson) are moping around a Mexican town looking for work, and being taken advantage of by unscrupulous oil speculators when they run across a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) talking about the Evil That Men Do, especially when they get a taste of that sweet, sweet gold money. Greed, treachery, complete abandonment of their former persons, really. Holt and especially Bogey aren’t too sure about this. They know they’re the sorts of people who would hang on themselves and know when to quit.
This isn’t quite Gremlin’s three rules, which I often hold up as “the worst script premise imaginable”, but there can hardly be any doubt that the events of the movie are going to put their asserted morality to the test.
Sure enough, when they get together a little cash, they decide to throw it toward prospecting, and enlist the old man to take them into the back hills where the gold is. They quickly regret this choice because gold tends to be where nobody else has gone, in places nobody wants to go. And then they quickly unregret it when they actually find gold. But finding gold leads to more cycles of regret and renewal, as well as a lot of tragedy. It is a truly great adventure film.
The acting is top-notch, obviously. Bogie’s part is complex, but Holt also does a fine job in a simpler (but still not exactly simple role). Walter Huston, whom son John gave only a couple of words in The Maltese Falcon before he keels over serves as the movies anchor point, but more on that later. Great score by Max Steiner.
I lied to The Flower about this. Not knowingly, but she asked me if Bogie was the good guy in this, and I told her yes. She gave me the side-eye when he cracked early on, but he does get over it. At least for a while. Which is what I remembered, I swear. Look, it’s a complex role. I had only seen the movie once before, a good 20 years ago and on TV. And TV is never the answer.
The kids really dug it, which was nice. The Flower and I more than The Boy, I think, and The Boy more than his girl, who has been a constant source of delight in trying to figure out what she’ll like and what she won’t like. “Hard to get a bead on” is a good sign of someone who’s watching things for real and not going by some preconceived notions.
Obviously you should check it out. Huston’s next film would be Key Largo, which seems like a likely entry in next year’s TCM Big Screen Classics.
A sidenote: John Huston’s speech, and his subsequent behavior toward his unruly companions, is classically (small “C”) christian. He reports on the bad behaviors of men; he prepares for it and tries to avoid it; and he does not judge. In the wake of all the sex scandals lately, one’s initial reaction is to think “I would never!” and to be appalled by the behavior of the various bad actors. But these people wake up with a pile of gold in their midst—often old, awkward, unlovely men who are suddenly surrounded by young, beautiful women who really want to please them—and even if you haven’t been touched by such things and even if you wouldn’t be touched by such things (as Huston’s character clearly isn’t), it serves one to resist temptation to forget that human fallibility is a thing we are all subject to, if only in different ways.
Which is, perhaps the lesson of the film. That, and to take the adventure as it happens and move on.