Spike Lee has always remixed and re-appropriated elements of other films within his own, going all the way back to Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing delivering a new version of the classic Love vs. Hate speech from Night of the Hunter. A tenured professor at NYU, Lee’s films often double as lessons in history, culture, and cinema, with BlackkKlansman going so far as to halt in its tracks in order to break down precisely why The Birth of a Nation is a historical abomination.

Lee’s most recent film, Da 5 Bloods, is no exception. The Vietnam-set epic is in open dialogue with the last century of war films, quoting everything from Apocalypse Now to Bridge on the River Kwai, with narrative nods to the likes of Dead Presidents, Kelly’s Heroes, and Three Kings (“soldiers try to pull off a heist in the middle of a war” is a shockingly robust genre-within-a-genre).

But there is one film above all others that Lee uses as a framework, specifically in relation to the central arc of the film’s presumptive lead. That film would be John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an inspiration so pointed that Lee goes so far as to quote its most iconic dialogue exchange during one of Bloods’ most high-tension moments.

Both Da 5 Bloods and Sierra Madre are films about ill-fated quests for gold in which the gold is obtained with surprising speed and ease. In both films, the real danger comes after the gold has been claimed and the treasure hunters begin turning on each other. When outside agitators start applying even more pressure, things turn bloody.

As one of the most beloved films ever made, Sierra Madre has inspired countless others (Paul Thomas Anderson watched it tirelessly while writing There Will Be Blood; Steven Spielberg ported Humphrey Bogart’s look directly onto Indiana Jones; Mel Brooks has named it his favorite picture of all time, etc.). Just last year, J.C. Chandor heavily quoted Madre with his own soldiers-on-a-heist movie, Triple Frontier. It makes perfect sense that Lee would use it as reference material for his take on the men-on-a-mission-being-unmade story form.

But the arc of Paul, played by Delroy Lindo (who better have gold statues flung at him all award season [whenever award season actually occurs]) so closely echoes that of Bogart’s Dobbs in Sierra Madre that comparing the two reveals and strengthens the core thematic material that Lee is chasing this time out.

In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart’s Dobbs descends into paranoid mania after the recovery of the gold and begins threatening the people he once called friends. The danger is exacerbated when a rival faction (Mexican bandits disguised as federales) arrive and stir up trouble, though the treasure hunters are able to drive them away. Dobbs fully turns on his collaborators and strikes out on his own. Battered and tortured by nature, he succumbs completely to his psychosis before running into the same group of bandits from earlier, who quickly dispatch him.

In Da 5 Bloods, Lindo’s Paul descends into paranoid mania after the recovery of the gold and begins threatening the people he once called friends. The danger is exacerbated when a rival faction (Vietnamese mercenaries) arrive and stir up trouble, though the treasure hunters are able to drive them away. Paul fully turns on his collaborators and strikes out on his own. Battered and tortured by nature, he succumbs completely to his psychosis before running into the same group of mercenaries from earlier, who quickly dispatch him.

The comparison point is threaded earlier into Da 5 Bloods, as Lindo’s Paul deals with an exasperating local who won’t take no for an answer tries to sell him a chicken over and over, begging Paul to make a deal since he has had no luck selling anything all day. The exact same scene occurs in Sierra Madre, as Bogart’s Dobbs is annoyed by an exasperating local trying to sell him a lottery ticket. The local even uses the same sob story about desperately needing to make a sale because they’ve come up empty all day.

While the characters’ trajectories are undeniably similar, their actual characterization is wildly different. Dobbs is depicted as a hearty, generous, and good-humored fellow all throughout the first chunk of the film. He scoffs at old man Howard (Walter Huston) and his theories that gold casts a spell of unquenchable greed on men who claim it. He puts up additional money to cover the costs of his friend Curtin (Tim Holt) and laughs off his buddy’s concerns about Dobbs making up a disproportionate amount of the initial investment in the expedition. No skinflint or penny-pincher, Dobbs’ affable nature remains in place even once the earliest streaks of mania begin to present themselves. It is only when the he and Curtin are left alone on their trek back through the wilderness that he fully spirals into homicidal paranoia.

Perhaps most noteworthy in John Huston’s characterization of Dobbs is the complete absence of a history or other motivating factor to explain his actions. We are introduced to Dobbs begging for coins and hustling for manual jobs in a Mexican oil-town. How he came to be there, we never learn. Both Howard and Curtin are extended backstories that give us a larger understanding of their willingness/eagerness to go treasure-hunting in the desert, and both men are also afforded futures that motivate them even further. Howard wishes for a few peaceful years at the end of a rambunctious life, while Curtin longs to return to the lush fruit fields of his youth. Dobbs has no past (in this, Huston’s screenplay differs from its source novel, in which Dobbs is provided a backstory that at least somewhat explains the violence in his temperament) and no future besides. While Howard and Curtin wax rhapsodic about the lives they will lead with their fortunes, Dobbs can only list the things he wishes to buy. He has no conception of life beyond the cycle of craving-satisfaction-craving.

All this fits into Huston’s conception of greed as a kind of bodiless boogeyman. Gold in his film has a power akin to the One Ring, spellbinding men towards horror. When Howard talks about the effect he’s seen gold affect on others, he may as well be describing the Necronomicon’s ability to summon demons. When a wounded Curtin tells Howard that Dobbs shot him in a frenzy of greed and suspicion, Howard can only shrug at the other man’s misfortune and admit that he would have been tempted to do the same thing had he been left alone with either Dobbs or Curtin, such is the inexplicable draw of gold.

While Lindo’s Paul graphs almost perfectly onto the narrative trajectory of Bogart’s Dobbs, in terms of actual characterization they could not be further apart. While Dobbs is depicted as a stand-up guy whose mind and soul eventually fracture, Paul is splintered from the first frames. He immediately freaks out his former squad-mates with his anti-immigration rants, complete with MAGA hat, and his relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors) is peppered with unspoken rage and resentment. He’s plagued by nightmares and admits to staying up late at night and talking with the ghost of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the squad’s leader who was killed in battle.

More critically, being back in Vietnam reawakens dormant traumas and griefs that Paul is ill-equipped to handle, even without bringing in a desperate, violent quest for gold. Dobbs eventually acquiesced to the kid trying to sell him a lottery ticket. In Lee’s update of that scene, Paul loses his temper and has to be dragged screaming away from the persistent local.

“I’m broken,” Paul admits, well before anything has gone wrong with the treasure hunt.

If Dobbs is a man deficient of any past, Paul is a man crushed under the weight of his history. Lee spends much of the film slowly but surely unspinning the tangle of tragedies that have brought Paul to this place. We learn, gradually, that David’s difficult delivery resulted in the death of his mother, Paul’s wife, creating a permanent gulf between father and son that neither knows how to address. We learn that Paul is dying from a lymphoma most likely tied to his exposure to chemicals like Agent Orange while serving in ‘Nam. And finally we learn that it was Paul, not the Vietcong, who killed the beloved Stormin’ Norman, accidentally hitting his friend and mentor in the midst of a firefight.

If both Dobbs and Paul are ultimately traitors to their friends who suffer violent, lonely deaths, the difference in their characterizations results in their identical fates taking on entirely different meanings. Dobbs is afforded no greater understanding in his final moments, either to himself or to us, the viewer. He is put down like a feral animal, the sudden brutality of his end exacerbated, not lessened, by the demands of the censorship board to trim the most gruesome footage.

But Lee (and Lindo’s incredible performance) unpack Paul as he moves towards his fate. As all his tragedies and traumas are at last spelled out for us, his resentments and fears finally come into focus. Here is a man who served his country and was betrayed, first as a black man returning home to a country still bent on denying him his person-hood and again as a soldier returning home to a country that either ignored or actively despised him for his service. Here is a man betrayed by nature as his wife died giving birth to his son. Here is a man whose own body has betrayed him, leaking poison and breaking down. He throws himself into the MAGA movement, buying heavily into the Us vs. Them narrative propagated by the Orange Fuckstick, which marks him as an interloper by one faction, and a sell-out to all his fellow people of color.

And underlying all of that is that original sin, the death of Stormin’ Norman. An accident that Paul can only see as a crime against a man he cherished and loved, and a poison seed infecting his ability to form attachments to others. Convinced of his own treachery, he can now only see the same when he looks at others.

Yet through this better understanding of Paul’s life, his death takes on new shape. Rather than the striking ugliness of machete blows to Bogart’s neck, Paul’s final moments are marked by grace and forgiveness. A vision of Norman appears before Paul (Chadwick Boseman stepping majestically into the widescreen for the first time in the film. Never let it be said that Spike Lee doesn’t know how to use a movie star for all they are worth) and embraces him, insisting that Paul forgive himself. He dies singing a Marvin Gaye song about finding brotherhood between all men. Dobbs died scuttling on the ground, Paul goes with his hands upstretched to the heavens, on his lips a lyric concerning the forgiveness of all sins.

In this moment, Lee recalls less the grim karma of Huston’s fable, but the hard-won holiness you might find in a Flannery O’Connor story like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. In this film as in that text, a character finds the state of grace that has alluded them all their lives while looking down the bottomless depths of a gun-barrel.

Our final moments with Paul are spent not with his bloodied corpse, but with a letter he wrote to David, affirming his love for his son in this life and all beyond.

Lee also breaks from Sierra Madre in another, major way: Huston’s film ends with the gold-dust our heroes have fought and killed for scattered to the winds, a final taunt by a decidedly Old Testament God making no secret of how He views all the mischief these humans have wrought. Da 5 Bloods ends with our heroes winning the day and making off with the fortune, only to put the money towards altruistic ends (donating to Black Lives Matter, taking care of the families of fallen friends, supporting other non-profit works).

Both Sierra Madre and Bloods are about cycles of destruction and bloodshed. Howard has a long line of tales concerning treasure hunts gone wrong, and the darkest aspect of Sierra Madre’s punchline is the knowledge that this is just one more futile story he’ll rattle off over drinks. Men will always chase gold, the chase will always go sideways, and more often than not they’ll end up as this sort of zero-sum boondoggle.

Da 5 Bloods is similarly about how these kinds of cycles, specifically about how wars never end. Yet Lee closes his film on an unabashed note of hope. There’s no ‘solving’ the Vietnam War or the racial divisions in America, no true way to recover all that has been lost and the generational trauma passed down. Such things are unending. But also unending is the drive of new generations to make tomorrow better than yesterday, to account for the past and clear a way to the future.

With Da 5 Bloods, Lee has repurposed a classic story to argue for the opposite of its original intent. In his version, the sinner is saved, and if there is an Almighty watching along, He’s willing to let things play out a little while longer before passing judgement. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get it right this time.

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