The Mystery of Sierra Madre

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Director John Huston returned from the war ready to begin work on The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which he originally intended to be his follow-up to The Maltese Falcon before he was called away.

Despite the wait, he found Warner Brothers and Humphrey Bogart still committed to the picture, and he began working on the screenplay.

The novel, on which the film was based, was published in Germany in the 1920s and was inspired by “The Pardoner’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. However, the mystery was (and is) who wrote it – as the author went under the pseudonym “B. Traven”.

But Huston, who wanted to remain faithful to the source material, was in luck. In 1941, when he first expressed desire to direct, Huston’s agent was able to get a letter to the mysterious Traven, who was excited about Humphrey Bogart as the lead.

After the war, Huston picked up his correspondence with the author as he started the screenplay. Traven even approved the changes Huston made in the story and said in one letter, “…I simply feel obliged to say that I don’t know anybody or can imagine anybody who could have written a script better liked by me than the one you wrote.”

To tell the story properly, Huston wanted to film in Mexico, and he arranged to meet the author when he went to scout locations. However, instead of finding Traven, the director met his emissary, Hal Croves, a small, thin man with gray hair.

Croves served as a technical advisor for the film and was paid $100 dollars per week. Many on the crew suspected Croves was actually Traven, but whenever asked, Croves became quite cross.

When Huston made the mistake of claiming so in a review, Traven responded, “John Huston, by being convinced, as he himself, that I was Traven, and then paying me a lousy $100 a week, only shows publically in how low an estimation he is holding Traven, the man, or the woman, as the case might be, whose story gave Mr. John Huston the chance of his lifetime.”

As a result, Troves promised never to let Huston adapt another of his stories.

In the end, the real identity of Traven was never fully revealed. At one point, Crove’s wife and even Croves himself affirmed his being Traven, but even then, the mystery was never fully unpacked.

“Traven has worked very hard at being mysterious, and I'd hate to see so much effort go for nothing,” said Huston.