A Tale From the Shore: 1954’s On The Waterfront

by Kevin Hopkins ’22

Source: South China Morning Post

Published Dec. 27th, 2020

In the age of blockbuster epics and superhero adventures, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront represents one of the greatest films of the golden era of Hollywood while also presenting a critique on modern notions of good and evil, right and wrong, and the value of kinship in difficult times.

The film starts out with the murder of Jimmy Doyle, a member of a local longshoremen’s union who testified to the commission investigating unfair labor practices, leading to his eventual death. When the local priest organizes a meeting between dissatisfied longshoremen’s workers, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is sent to scope out the get-together. 

Suddenly, a rock is thrown into the church, forcing Malloy to protect Jimmy Doyle’s sister, Eddie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint). An unlikely romance emerges between Eddie Doyle and Terry Malloy until Malloy, filled with guilt, decides to finally admit his involvement in the death of her brother and contemplates renouncing the union and testifying to the commission.

 In the penultimate scene between Terry and Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger), Terry rips into his brother and the Longshoremen’s Union as unfair and immoral, uttering the famous line, “I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” 

When Terry finally testifies against the Longshoremen’s union, he is publicly ostracized by the community for going against the established order. In the most tense scene of the film, Terry Malloy takes a firm stand between the longshoremen’s union and its leader, John Friendly ( Lee J. Cobb), rousing his friends against the corrupt union.  

The morality of Malloy’s stand between the corruption of the longshoremen’s union is similar to the stand of the director, Elia Kazan, in his battle against the rampant communism in Hollywood that he witnessed. His controversial agreement to testify against many of his fellow Hollywood friends, including legendary playwright Arthur Miller, to the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) resulted in him losing much of his respect within the industry.

Miller himself was outraged by Kazan’s decision to testify and eventually wrote the play, The Crucible, in 1952 in response to Kazan’s actions. When Kazan was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in 1999, many in the industry complained with Marlon Brando himself refusing to present the award. 

The legendary picture still represents many controversial concepts to modern audiences including the value of friendship and kinship in difficult situations and the responsibility of individuals to “name names.” Parallels between Malloy’s actions and Edward Snowden’s stand against the government’s ability to spy on its citizens brings this concept to the modern news cycle.

More recently, local officials have asked for the public to alert the police in many large cities if large gatherings are taking place in the midst of the global pandemic. It is obvious that the questions about loyalty and morality that the film raised nearly seventy years ago are still being debated and pondered about in 2020.

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