More Mining Wisdom from an Old Movie (Part 1)

I was born in 1948 (yes soon to turn 70), the very same year Hollywood produced the best adventure/treasure hunting/gold mining movie ever made...Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you're of a younger generation and haven't heard of or seen this flick then do yourself a favor a buy a copy on DVD or Blu-Ray. You won't be disappointed.

But I'm not here to sing the many praises of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No sir or madam. I'm here to expand on the mining wisdom expressed by one of the central characters of the film, an old-time prospector named Howard (played by Walter Huston). Howard becomes the mentor to two other American "down-n'-outers" living on the streets of Tampico, Mexico trying to find work there during the oil boom and bust days of the 1920s-1930s. Those two greenhorns are Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (played by Tim Holt).

 (Down and out in Tampico.)

Howard: "Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold some twenty bucks an ounce?" 

(Yes, gold varied between $20.00 [USD] and $35.00 per troy ounce during this period. The higher price was made law under Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in 1934).
Flophouse Bum (minor character): "I don't know. Because it's scarce."

Howard: "A thousand men, say, go looking for gold. After six months, one of them's lucky. One out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor but that of nine hundred and ninety nine others to boot. That's six thousand months, five hundred years...scrambling over a mountain, going hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold is worth what it is, Mister, because of the human labor that went into the finding and getting of it."

Flophouse Bum: "I never thought of it that way."

Howard:  "Well, there's no other explanation Mister. Gold itself ain't good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth."

In his own inimitable way what Howard is doing here is touching on the erroneous and widely held idea that gold is valuable because of its scarcity or rarity. Not true. Although not common in the greatest sense of the word, natural gold (placer or lode) is not rare or scarce. Most of you who've been at this small-scale prospecting and mining thing for a while know this already. You can go to a mineralized area or a well-known spot and turn color quite easily. What isn't common these days, however, are new large-scale gold deposits of placer or lode gold with commercial value. No, gold isn't valuable of and by itself even though its uses today are more varied than "making jewelry with and gold teeth." What makes gold valuable is the sheer amount of time, effort, and plain old hard work it takes to get substantial amounts of the yellow metal out of the ground. As small-scale gold miners you know this to be true. If you're a newbie or greenhorn, if you DON'T know this, soon will.

(Gold is used in more than jewelry and teeth these days.)

Howard:  "Gold's a devilish sort of thing, anyway. You start out and tell yourself you'll be satisfied with 25,000 handsome smackers worth of it. So help me, Lord, and cross my heart! Fine resolution. After months of sweating yourself dizzy, growing short of provisions and finding nothing, you finally come down to $15,000, then ten. Finally you say, 'Lord let me find just $5,000 worth and I'll never ask for anything more the rest of my life.' "

Ahhhh, the moment of truth. Striking it rich as a small-scale gold miner is, in essence, a pipe dream. What Howard alludes to here again is a distorted view of just how much gold you can expect to recover as a small-scale guy or gal. It's great to have big dreams but in small-scale mining you need to scale those dreams back a bit to match the reality of the situation. In the final analysis, after working your ass off for any real length of time you'll be more than satisfied with that small vial of flakes and fines in your poke.

 (It's still hard work.)

Flophouse Bum:  "Five-thousand dollars is a lot of money."

Howard:  "Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you if you was to make a real strike you couldn't be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add $10,000 more. Ten you'd want to get twenty five, twenty five you'd want to get fifty, fifty a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more."

Howard's seen and lived this and history is replete with those whose golden attraction turned to greed at some point or another. Even the threat of torture, disease, or untimely death wasn't enough to deter them. But beyond this obvious point what Howard is saying here is that once the gold bug bites you you're off and running. You may be happy with what you recover...for a bit anyway, but the idea is always lurking in the back of your brain that just one more shovelful of dirt will turn things around for you. That you'll hit the "big one." And what happens when you do? You'll spin that roulette wheel again...and again...and again. And if you do make a big strike or start adding up those ounces of gold other dangers can pop up. Like other people...people who want what you have. In essence, if enough gold's around it can turn decent men and women into monsters...yourself included.

Anyway, if you haven't seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre you're missing out on a great movie and even more mining wisdom.

There's more to come...

(c) Jim Rocha 2017

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Great show, great advice. I have not seen this one in a long time. The only part I didn't find very accurate was at the end where all that gold was blowing away in the wind. I think that was to show that no matter how much value you put on something, it can be gone in an instant. Still, it wouldn't have gone far and could have been recovered without much trouble. Anyway.......

  2. Gary I think your assessment of the end of the movie is very perceptive. We all know that gold doesn't look like sand or dirt after being processed, however crudely. So the symbolism of something of value being gone in an instant is right on the money (no pun intended). You're one sharp cookie!


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