Reel Rumbles: “The Big Lebowski” vs. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”
Pride. It is often considered the worst of the seven deadliest sins and by many to be the source of the other six. Though these films are separated by four decades, both tackle pride in a very human and relatable way. The styles of each film differ greatly reflecting both their directors and the times the films were produced. Each show both the highs and lows of human pride. It is a quality that will undoubtedly remain the subject of film for many years to come. Let’s see whether the Western classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the more modern crime-comedy The Big Lebowski better conveys the human condition. Either way, this is all just, my opinion, man.
Round One: Story/Script
The Big Lebowski tells the story Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a carefree bowler who prefers to roll through life on a combination of white Russians, drugs, and a philosophy of letting go and not taking anything too seriously. He is joined by his friends and fellow bowling partners Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) who spend their days bowling and slacking about.
His daily routine is interrupted by the slow drizzle of urine upon his favorite carpet. Two thugs are seeking to collect from Jeffery Lewbowski, a multi-millionaire cripple who happens to share the same name with The Dude. Seeking to have his rug replaced leads The Dude into a hostage-kidnapping full of players all seeking their own stake in the recovery of the great ransom.
The script is certainly an eccentric one that balances out the various storylines and players quite well through the use of The Dude. It is all too often that the events of the film are thrust upon the protagonist and follow a very similar structure. The hero doesn’t accept his tasks at first but slowly learns responsibility and rises up to challenge the tasks before them. This is basic dramatic structure and there is nothing inherently wrong with this story structure. It forms the basis of many excellent films and other pieces of media. That said, it is used very often and without something to differentiate from other films it becomes very repetitive.
This is not the case for The Big Lebowski. The Coen Brothers well-crafted script creates a protagonist whose overall stake in the unfolding events is fairly minimal. Certainly, The Dude wishes to collect the payment due to him for assisting the various competing parties. Above all else, all he really wanted to do was get his rug back. It is largely the actions of his friend Walter that thrust him into the film’s narrative. In the hands of a lesser writer, this type of protagonist might have proved frustrating to audiences as he very rarely takes any type of forward moving action instead usually allowing events to happen to him. Yet the Coens create a character who draws the audience’s attention and carries them throughout this crime caper.
The various elements and subtle interactions between the various characters are enough to warrant a separate analysis of its own. Needless to say, the story of The Big Lebowski never bores or drags despite setting itself up to do just that. Wonderfully drawn characters do all they need to, to create a natural and organic narrative that keeps your attention from beginning to end.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre takes place seventy years earlier than the urban trappings of Lebowski. Taking place in the deserts of Mexico, the film follows the actions of another initially unemployed protagonist, John Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). Down on his luck, Dobbs does what he can to survive by begging for money to get his next meal and is forced to stay in housing for the poor. His attempts at employment only result in getting gypped by his employer.
Dobbs makes friends in another homeless American Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) is also tricked by the wealthy employer. After hearing about the gold-prospecting exploits of an old-timer Howard (Walter Huston), they plan to attempt to venture out into the wilds of Mexico to strike it rich. Combining what money they have and reluctantly recruiting Howard due to their lack of prospecting knowledge, they strike out to enact their plans for fortune.
Written by the director John Huston, the script is more similar to the traditional dramatic structure described earlier. However, that only works to the film’s advantage and with a key change in this structure, the script resonates in a major way. Similarly to Lebowski, extremely well-crafted characters help drive the film’s narrative. All are balanced and drawn to be very human and realistic. The harsh realities of Mexico’s wilds and hordes of murderous bandits help push the characters to their limits trying to maintain control of their golden fortune.
Howard warns early on about the vices of humanity. The lure of gold and its wealth is enough to corrupt the thoughts and intentions of even the purest men. Though the lack of being completely pure-hearted may lessen the impact of Dobbs eventual fall to some, Dobbs is still depicted as being good-natured enough that the truth of Howard’s ominous forewarnings still hurts all the same as it comes to fruition. One cannot but help sympathize with Dobbs’s actions though as the harsh realities of the world he lives in would be enough to jade even the noblest of men.
Both films offer well-drawn narratives full of interesting and nuanced characters that are the main drive of the narrative force. The Big Lebowksi may rely more on humor and style than Huston’s more dramatic piece, but that is only to its advantage. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superb dramatic narrative without a doubt. However, the Coen’s crisscrossing piece driven by an unlikely protagonist that is bookended by deeper musings by The Stranger (Sam Elliot) gives it the slight advantage. By a hair, it goes to the Dude.
Advantage: The Big Lebowski
Round Two: Characters
As their characters drive both films, this category is one of major import.
The Big Lebowski features an eclectic mixture of characters. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude. Bridges’s performance certainly could be called one-note. His character largely remains unchanged throughout the course of the film. However this would be a very simplistic take on the character. Bridges helps create a defined persona that has captured the fancy of pop culture. He embraces a carefree attitude focused on his pleasure and happiness. The “Big” Lebowski describes him as a hippie and bum. It could be true. Yet the Dude isn’t a man drowning in self-depreciation and misery. He is not full of self-pity or a gaping sadness. Instead, the Dude enjoys his lifestyle and achieves his own happiness and joy from it. A lesser actor might have made the Dude into a one joke character or cartoonish caricature. Bridges instead creates a nuanced man who embraces a philosophy of simplicity and joy from that. Small touches within the script further help cement this character into the real world and have made the Dude the pop culture icon that he is today.
Jeff Bridges may certainly be the star of the show, but the rest of the cast is far from lacking. Goodman’s bombastic Walter provides a nice contrast to the laid-back Lebowski. He embraces the role completely reveling in the loud-mouthed proclamations and quirks of Walter making him an entertaining companion to Bridges. It is often the actions of Walter that help further drive The Dude into the narrative where he wouldn’t have bothered to take action. Julianne Moore plays the avant-garde artist Maude Lebowski, daughter of the titular character. Moore’s acting ability helps ground an outlandish character in realism which helps propel the narrative forward.
Steve Buscemi plays a more minor role than usual in the form of Donny. Though he largely serves as a comedic play-off for Goodman, his character is drawn to be naïve and good-natured intentionally to make his fate all the more shocking. This helps to serve one of the underlying themes of The Big Lebowski making the role important despite the smaller acting chops needed for the character. David Huddleston’s turn as the “Big” Lebowski provides the crux of the Dude’s motivation throughout the film. Huddleston does a wonderful job playing up the big man that Lebowski wants to be seen as, despite the realities of his condition. He portrays the highs and lows wonderfully and proves the perfect antagonist to Bridges.
Other minor roles of note are a younger Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Thewlis, John Turturro, and Mark Pellegrino. Hoffman’s role is similar to Buscemi’s in that in is a character more important to the narrative and symbolism of the film than a character of itself. Hoffman does a fine job making the character memorable and distinct though. Thewlis and Turturro both play odd characters that provided a basis for them to propel to further stardom. Mark Pellegrino notable for his turn as Lucifer on the CW series, Supernatural, plays a simple thug. It is interesting to see how some actors get their beginnings in the world of Hollywood.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre features it’s own mixture of characters. Not quite the wild and eccentric bunch of Lebowski, they still are all dynamic and interesting characters that carry us through this thrilling story. Like Lebowski though, we are guided through the story with three main protagonists. The first of these is Dobbs, played by an excellent Humphrey Bogart. Dobbs is a man down on his luck and jaded by poverty. Though other characters have their roles, he is the star of the show. Bogart carries the performance wonderfully throughout the film. Though the film is harmed slightly by not having Dobbs being shown as kinder in the beginning, this is only a small detail. Dobbs fall into avarice and greed is fascinating and saddening to watch. The subtle nuances of Bogart’s face do a wonderful job of showing how a man is overcome by his nature.
Tim Holt portrays Dobbs partner, Curtin. Curtin offers a wonderful contrast to the nature of Dobbs. Both have suffered from similar circumstances. Yet Curtin strays to a different path from Dobbs despite showing susceptibility to the corrupting nature of wealth. This character could have come across very flat and one-sided, but Holt also does a great job of capturing the subtle nuances of the character. Curtin makes a wonderful character for the audience to cling to as Dobbs slowly loses himself.
The older Howard, portrayed by Walter Huston, serves as a great mentor for the pair. Having experienced the faults of greed in his past, he attempts to guide the two younger men in the right direction. Though he ultimately cannot prevent the inevitable, the audience hopes that Howard can show their errors. Huston captures the nature of the older and more wizened man perfectly.
The supporting cast of the various bandits and Federal Police all do well. Though it could be seen as caricatures, there is much to indicate that the depictions are accurate. The best supporting performance comes in the pragmatic James Cody. Bruce Bennett plays the character well enough and helps pose the significant moral challenge needed to shake the convictions of our protagonists. He tests their depths of their character and proves the defining difference between Dobbs and Curtin. Bennett plays the role well, unflinching and willing to do what needed to survive.
The cast of The Big Lebowski is certainly more outlandish and varied than the characters of Sierra Madre. Though there are many strong performances throughout both films, Sierra Madre offers something more relatable to most. The haunting fall and corruption of Dobbs stands as one of the best in cinema giving Sierra Madre the win here.
Advantage: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Round Three: Direction
The Coen Brothers are well known as one of the best directing duos in film and they don’t disappoint here. Every aspect of Lebowski indicates care and purpose. The camera work is full of interesting and dynamic angles that help showcase the wonderfully filmed picture. Two outstanding sequences are the two different psychedelic sequences when the Dude is knocked out for various reasons. The sequences are wonderfully creative and help showcase various aspects of the story in the Dude’s mind.
Each locale is distinct from each other and helps set the mood of the scene. Topping the film off is a fantastic and varied soundtrack. With songs ranging from “The Man In Me” by Bob Dylan to “Looking Out My Back Door” by CCR, they help set the moods of various scenes and infuse the film with an energy that make it all the more interesting. The Coens song selection fits each scene perfectly.
The ever-wonderful John Huston directs The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston became known for wonderful character dramas that featured an alliance of conflicting personalities that adds tension and character development. Huston’s hand at approaching the film from an art standpoint stands out in every frame of the film. The rich and deep black and white film is simply put beautiful. Stunning landscapes dominate this film as the wilds of Mexico are captured perfectly.
This was one of the first major Hollywood films to be filmed on-location and it shows. There is a gritty authenticity to each frame. Huston’s direction makes even the shows filmed in a studio look true and real. The costumes are well selected and add more emotional weight as each character looks completely authentic.
The Coen Brothers are some of the best filmmakers in modern cinema. Each of their films has it’s own artistry and mood. They did an excellent job with Lebowski. However Huston cannot be bested in his work on Sierra Madre. His artistry and care as a film maker is superb and Sierra Madre stands as one of his best.
Advantage: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Bonus Round: Clash of Lives
In this bonus round, we will examine what would happen if the protagonists of both films swapped situations. Who would survive each other’s situation and come out on top?
What would happen if the Dude, Walter, and Donny found themselves mining gold in the Mexican desert? Donny and Walter would probably work tirelessly to attempt to garner their fortune while the Dude would aimlessly help occasionally but would mostly sit back and drink White Russians. After the many months that it would take from them to garner their fortune, Donny would fall dead. The Dude and Walter would mourn the loss of their friend but continue onwards into the sunset of the Mexican sun, wanderers of the wonderful life before getting murdered by bandits.
What would happen if Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin wound up in the center of a kidnapping? Dobbs and Curtin would jump at a chance to receive part of Lebowski’s fortune and work tirelessly to find Bunny’s captors. Howard would urge common sense but Dobbs and Curtin would kill the nihilists at the first chance they got and Dobbs would likely try to intimidate Maude Lebowski for information. Maude would distance herself from Dobbs and they would never discover vital information. Ultimately, Dobbs would get bumped off for his violent behavior, but Curtin and Howard would receive their fortune for discovering the root of the kidnapping from Maude.
Dobbs’s behavior and greed would quickly have him taken out in the world of Lebowski, but the Dude, Walter, and Donny would be unsuited for life in the Mexican deserts. They would perish in the wild while Curtin and Howard would be smart enough to escape Bunny’s kidnapping and the opposing players relatively unscathed.
Advantage: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
And the winner is…
Much credit is to be given to the Coen Brother’s crime drama-comedy. The Big Lebowski is an entertaining and wonderfully made film. The performances are great all around and Jeff Bridges turn as the Dude has inspired an entire philosophy. The movie has a wonderful soundtrack as well and several stand out scenes do a great job of showcasing the Coen Brothers great direction. But Huston’s film is a cornerstone of classic cinema. The Treasure of Sierra Madre is an infinitely relatable film that remains entertaining and relevant decades later and will likely continue to be. Endlessly gripping and beautiful, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the better film.