“On the Waterfront is the battle between good and evil.” Do you agree?
When Elia Kazan directed “On the Waterfront” in the early 1950’s, he was struggling within the political tide of McCarthyism. The message implicit in the film, as demonstrated in the final scene, is that people united can overcome an unjust rule. Strangely, Kazan did not live up to the values scripted in the screenplay written by his friend Arthur Miller (who, in the context of this issue, also wrote The Crucible), for he testified against his colleagues before the powerful HUAC and thus earned the contempt of a liberal Hollywood but not the court. In the eyes of many, On The Waterfront is a form of justification for Kazan’s act of “breaking the silence”. However, it is also clear from the narrative that it demands great courage and effort from an individual, Terry Malloy, to fight injustice and lead the workers to freedom and equal rights. This is because at the beginning of the film Terry is controlled by his corrupt and evil “friends”, particularly the mob boss Michael J. Scelli. Caught by his conscience, Terry must choose sides, and thus he struggles to decide between the values of his corrupt brother and the powerful mob, and those of his innocent and angelic girlfriend and the strongly moral local priest. “On the Waterfront” is clearly the story of the battle for a man’s soul, and the triumph of good over evil.
Initially, Terry finds himself being used as an ignorant “bum” for evil purposes, but he is not ready or strong enough to break free. When Terry betrays Joey (who is his friend) because Joey broke a secret rule of “D ‘n D”, he is shocked when Joey is killed by the mob. The fact is that Johnny Friendly’s side will kill all and any longshoremen who try tell the truth – “When those guys wanna win a bet there’s nothing they won’t stop at”. A poor woman mourns that her Andy was killed five years ago, proving that this community has lived in fear for years. Likewise, in the early scenes when Joey calls from his window saying “I gotta watch myself, you know?” we the audience understand that fear is part of this community. The spectre of that fear is realised almost immediately in the menacing and murderous shadows that wait on the roof above him. Joey’s fears are almost immediately confirmed when he is thrown from the roof, and the mobsters joke “He could sing but he couldn’t fly.” At this stage Terry is shocked, worried, confused, and clearly regretting following the instructions of his evil friends. Later he admits “It started out as a favour… A favour, who am I kiddin’, it’s do it or else”, but in the early scenes Terry is simply a puppet being played in the mobs’ evil game.
Yet Terry is not alone in his problems, for all the longshoremen are being cheated, victimised and oppressed. Every morning the workers fight amongst themselves for the chance to get a day’s work – the scene when this occurs is terrible, and the audience is outraged when the innocent Edie has to step into the scrum of “meatballs” to help her aged and feeble father. These are hard and desperate circumstances, and the workers themselves know “The waterfront’s tougher, Father, like it ain’t part of America.” A society has formed with no sense of security, no sense of community, and where mob rule overpowers the rule of law. Johnny Friendly has convinced the workers to remain deaf and dumb, and they have learned “You don’t ask no questions, you don’t answer no questions, unless you want to end up like that [dead].” Yet Johnny has taken away so much more from the workers because he has denied them justice, and so has convinced them that they have no rights. This is why Terry and his fellows can only state “Me, I’m with me.” They know “Down here it’s every man for himself…”. This is the evil regime that must be fought “On the Waterfront”, a society of corruption, violence, fear, silence and self-preservation.
The battle for Terry’s soul is won many times over. First, he is persuaded by the good priest to confess to innocent Edie. “Honest to God” he begs her for forgiveness. When she runs away in horror Father Barry slumps with despair and lights a cigarette – he knows that Terry is still struggling for redemption, and that Edie is the best hope he has. The next event to pass is instrumental in Terry’s liberation from the hold of the mob: his brother Charley “the Gent” tries to bribe him not to speak in court, yet mindful of Father Barry’s sermon “He sees you selling your souls to the mob for a day’s pay!” Terry contends “There’s more to this than I thought.” Terry refuses Charley’s bribe, shames his brother, and is released. This is the second victory for Terry’s soul. Sadly, Charley is killed. Terry vows ““I’m gonna take it out on their skulls.” Had he succeeded in fighting “like a hoodlum” and shooting Johnny Friendly his soul would have been lost, yet the good priest succeeds in persuading him to take his fight into the courtroom instead. This is where the battle can really be won the right way, as the director Elia Kazan would like to believe of his country. However, the fight for good could not have been fought by Terry if he had not been forced to recognise both matters of conscience, and matters of truth and justice.
The final battle occurs, most fittingly, on the waterfront itself. Terry wears Joey’s jacket, symbolising to Johnny and to the longshoreman the fallacy of “D ‘n D”. Johnny accuses him of “ratting on us”, but Terry smiles and appeals with his hands to his true friends, stating to all watching “From where you stand maybe, but I’m standing over here now. I was ratting on myself all them years: I didn’t even know it.” The truth is out! Johnny’s evil regime is broken, but Elia Kazan is not finished yet. He wants the workers to unite, and to overthrow their oppressor. Thus it is that there is one more battle to be fought, a fist-fight of uneven odds that Terry must lose in order “to win the war.” The courage and devotion to his fellow longshoremen that Terry shows as he leads them to work gives the audience a far more satisfying victory than any courtroom decision! These final scenes are an autobiographical fantasy for Kazan, for he similarly wished that his colleagues could forgive him for speaking to the commission and follow him back to work. Sadly history did not realise such a dream, and many of those blacklisted as communist sympathizers by HUAC (of which there were as many as 300) suffered the destruction of their careers. Many never forgave Kazan, although others were able to relegate the unfortunate events to the past.
“On the Waterfront”, the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award in 1954, is a very American tale about the battle for truth and justice, and it also presents how a society united can overcome an evil oppressor. More importantly, it explores an individual’s battle with his conscience, the performance of which won Marlon Brando the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actor. In many respects the film is frighteningly realistic, for it is based on events that came to pass in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the fight against the criminal Italian mob. Such battles for justice and equality, morality and redemption still occur throughout the world today. The film therefore is an inspiration for even a modern audience to pursue. To view the film as the story of Kazan’s testimony is inaccurate, particularly because the figures of the powerful mob fail to match the Communist party nearly as much as the HUAC commision itself to whom Kazan revealed names. Hollywood has always a certain licence for the truth, but not liberty! It is best to consider the triumph against evil to exist only for the fictional character of Terry Malloy, or for the historical workers on the docks of New York, for Kazan never suffered such overbearing persecution in his profession.