#19 On the Waterfront

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
Father Barry

Elia Kazan’s tale of a Mob-run group of waterfront union workers hits all its bases, and it hits them hard.

At the centre of On the Waterfront is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-meaning, late-twenties, former boxer, errand boy for the mob.

The film opens with Terry, on one of his mob errands, leading Doyle, a fellow union worker and friend, to a rooftop rendezvous with some less than savory characters. Doyle is to be punished for talking to the cops about the mob’s illegal involvement in union affairs. Terry, being not the most intellectually gifted union worker, assumes that the mob simply wants to “lean” on young Doyle. But the mob had other plans. Instead of simply threatening the young man these “less than savory characters” throw Doyle off the roof.

Immediately it can be seen that this does not sit well with Terry, but due to the fact that his brother is the mob leader’s right-hand-man, Terry keeps his mouth shut, and he is not alone in this. No one seems to be willing to say more than two words to the police abut anything related to the waterfront. That’s the thing about people who have grown up around the mob, a different code dictates their actions.

It is not until a zealous priest, and Doyle’s younger sister, make their way to the docks that there is any real hope for change. The priest calls a meeting in the church basement for all dock-workers who are tired of the oppression they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The mob quickly gets wind of this though and sends Terry in to keep any eye on the would-be uprising. But when a group of people from the mob decides to violently end this meeting, Terry is forced to escort Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), to safety.

What ensues is a fledgling romance between Terry and Edie, and the result is the development of a conscience for young Terry. Terry quickly realizes that he can not keep living a life of service to the mob, and hope to enter a relationship with Edie, so he is forced to choose between his code of honour, and his new-found sense of morality.

Kazan proved his skill as a director in this film. Not only was the story well told, but it was told in a way that allowed the viewer to dig deeper, and find meaning in the carefully selected imagery.

After Doyle’ death, which Terry feels responsible for, Terry begins to look after Doyle’s pet pigeons. This simple act may not seem like much, but when Terry reveals the necessity for guarding the pigeons from hawks it becomes quite clear that Terry cares about more than just pigeons.

With Doyle, the only person who had been willing to stand up to the mob, dead, the task will soon fall on Terry to take over, just as he did with Doyle’s pigeons.

But Doyle wasn’t the only Shepard to come before Terry. The Zealous priest (Karl Madden) was the first audible voice of opposition against the mob. Notice in the film that he constantly is asking dockhands for a cigarette, but he never actually lights one. This shows the priest’s dedication to the union workers while never actually succumbing to their vices.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the film though, is the idea of self-sacrifice. The most obvious reference to this in the film is that of Jesus. It is important to notice the physical changes in Terry as he begins to understand the need for this sacrifice.

Almost immediately after Terry agrees to cooperate with the police he is cut with a piece of glass. Normally this would be insignificant, but Terry was cut in the wrist (the exact place that those who were crucified received their nails). He continues to gain more physical similarities to Jesus as the film goes on. Not only does he take a flogging from a group of mob henchmen, which pretty much destroys his face, but he also is forced to take one last walk along the docks in front of the rest of the union workers, a task that is not made easy due to the fact that he could barely stand under his own power. This one final act of sacrifice served as a symbol that was able to set the other union workers free of the mob.

This is a film that was based on a book, which was inspired by newspaper articles, which are (of course) based on true events. More importantly, as one of the detectives in the film said, this is a story that the public has a right to be told. We so often take for granted our rights in this country but we never actually think about where they come from. The military seems to get its due credit, probably about eight or nine times on this AFI list for instance, but men in arms weren’t the only ones that suffered to make our lives better. Countless people had to go hungry, cold, or homeless so that we could enjoy the labour standards that we have today, but they don’t seem to get any credit (as far as I know there are two films on this list that celebrate the achievements of union workers: On the Waterfront and The Grapes of Wrath). Well this is their epic. This is a film that those in the past can be honoured by. And, it is a film that we can still enjoy today.

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