For me, the history of acting in film can be divided into two halves: before “On the Waterfront” and after “On the Waterfront”. And I mean that in all sincerity. In this film, Budd Schulberg’s screenplay and Elia Kazan’s directing come together give this incredible ensemble some great material to work with, and they present a realism of film performances that I feel set a new standard. I suppose Kazan’s previous film “A Streetcar Named Desire” helped do that as well, but it culminates for me in “On the Waterfront”. And not only is it a landmark in filmmaking, but it presents a very impactful view of what the idea of church might mean.
Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, the brother of Charley (Rod Steiger) who works for the local mob boss at the docks, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). At the beginning of the film, we see Terry send a dock worker named Joey Doyle to the roof of his apartment… where two men working for Friendly push Joey off, sending him to his death. Terry, not thinking that the men would actually kill Joey, is remorseful. Joey’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint in her first film role) is distraught, and the local Catholic priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) tells her that he will be in the church if she needs help. She responds angrily, “You ever heard of a saint hiding in a church?” She promptly decides she will find out the real reasons for her brother’s death.
Terry works as a dockworker at the pier, and because he has a connection with Friendly, he is one of the few men specifically chosen for work consistently. The day following Joey’s death, a couple key events happen to Terry. A man from the Waterfront Crime Commission approaches him asking if Terry will testify in court about Joey’s murder, which Terry refuses. Later, he finds Father Barry and Edie at the dock, and he hides his guilt. Barry learns of the dockworkers’ policy not to “rat” on Friendly or his men lest they be bumped off, and Father Barry decides to hold a meeting about the situation in the church that night. Charley learns of the meeting and tells Terry to go and report anything suspicious.
That night at the meeting, despite some of Friendly’s men coming and breaking up the meeting violently, one of the workers named Kayo Dugan decides to testify with Father Barry’s support. Meanwhile, Terry starts talking to Edie Doyle, who is unaware of his involvement in Joey’s death. After some time goes by, the two hit it off and start falling in love, but Terry is too conflicted to be able to tell Edie about Joey’s death. One night, Friendly and Charley approach him and scold him for going around with Edie and not telling everything about the meeting—it seems that Kayo had gone to the crime commission and agreed to testify.
The next day, Friendly orders a series of crates to “accidentally” fall on top of Kayo, killing him. Father Barry comes later and has a word for the corrupt dockworkers and bosses at the waterfront:
BARRY: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the mob puts the pressure on a good man and tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of injustice as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.
Some workers of Johnny Friendly start throwing rocks and things down below.
WORKER: Go back to your church, Father!
BARRY: Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming!
Terry listens to this message, and later on, he goes to Barry and confesses his role in Joey’s death. Father Barry encourages Terry to tell Edie, who, of course, doesn’t take it very well. That night, Charley tries one last time to get Terry not to testify in court, and this is where we get Terry’s emotional monologue about his failed past as a boxer who compromised. “You don’t understand,” he tells Charley, “I could have had class! I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it.” Later that night, Terry goes to Edie and reconciles, but soon the two of them find Charley’s murdered body, and this is the last straw for Terry.
The next day in court, Terry doesn’t hold anything back about the corruption on the waterfront. But for some reason, the dockworkers don’t view him as a hero. They think of him as a “canary”, a tattletale who may have done what he did to make himself look better than everyone else. Edie believes he did the right thing, but Terry still isn’t satisfied. And later, after being turned down for a job at the dock, Terry calls to Johnny Friendly and yells, “You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty, stinking muck! And I’m glad what I done to you!” Friendly attacks Terry and leaves him beaten and bloody, but the dockworkers now have the courage to stand up for themselves.
In the end, Terry gets up with the help of Edie and Father Barry, ready to work. And another man, here to replace Friendly as head of the waterfront, announces to the workers that it’s time to work, and they all pass the defeated Johnny Friendly on their way to a better job and a better life.
Here’s the interesting context behind “On the Waterfront”. Shortly before the film’s release, director Elia Kazan, a former member of the Communist Party, reported names to HUAC of former or present Communists, which in that day was very frowned upon. But Kazan believed it was the right thing to do, and “On the Waterfront”, no matter how much Kazan denies it, symbolizes his decision to do right even when everyone else rejects him. And even amidst that controversy, “On the Waterfront” went on to rightfully win eight Academy Awards and become a milestone in American film.
But recently, after re-watching the film, I realized how much that decision to do right relates to Christianity. Father Barry was preaching it all along, and I never really made the connection. Speaking up for wrongdoing, especially in a corrupt place, is the kind of thing Jesus did constantly in his ministry. He never shunned sinners, but he called out those in the church that did not minister to those in need. And even before Jesus was doing his ministry on Earth, the Bible talks about caring for those who need it most.
Proverbs 31:8-9 reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This is what, in a sense, Joey Doyle, Kayo Dugan, and Terry Malloy all attempted to do—and what Terry was able to do in the end. He helped put an end to corruption on the waterfront, and believers can also fight for injustice in our own way. Whatever that way is, I pray that you and I would find guidance from God and serve Him in what we do.