Reflections: On the Waterfront

Won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director=Elia Kazan, Best Actor=Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actor=Karl Malden, Best Story and Screenplay=Bud Shulberg. Musical Score by Leonard Bernstein

As a follow-up to Labor Day, and to prevent us from being piously maudlin about it, it might be appropriate to consider On the Waterfront, which the American Film Institute considers the 8th greatest American movie, and which is included on the Vatican’s list of 45 greatest films.

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront is a stirring film about justice in the workplace and about liberation from oppression. It is certainly more than just a period piece about the late 40’s. It is built around the life of Fr. John Corridan, S.J., a labor priest played by Karl Malden. Marlon Brando plays the main character, Terry Malloy, a down and out ex-prize fighter and corruption’s accomplice who turns to struggle against union corruption along the New York waterfront. Malloy’s battle takes him all the way to the witness stand, where he finds himself testifying against corrupt union leaders. The film ends with Malloy being brutally beaten, but nonetheless leading the longshoremen in a way of the cross to unload a ship, victorious over the corrupt union bosses. In real life, however, there was no such victory.

The film was director’s Elia Kazan’s response to his own decision to turn in the names of his Hollywood contemporaries during Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communism hearings. He features Terry Malloy as the justified informer. Malloy’s conscience awakens to the stark reality of union corruption. Malloy is influenced by Fr. Barry’s powerful sermon applying belief in the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. It is Christ who has just died again in a slain longshoreman. “Boys, this is my Church. And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming.!” In John May’s view, Malloy is a Christ figure through whom, as we experience his suffering, we experience resurrection. Think of Malloy’s girlfriend, Edie, as a “Beatrice” who leads him through hell and purgatory.

An estranged friend of Kazan and Shulberg’s, Arthur Miller, presents the same political milieu of the early 1950’s as a time of hysteria in The Crucible. Only the fact that Marlon Brando agreed to play the lead enabled the film to be produced at all since the Hollywood community was blacklisting Elia Kazan. Blacklists were working several different ways. The script was turned down by 8 Hollywood studios. Another film to compare On the Waterfront to is John Ford’s The Informer with its incredible final words: “she forgives me.”

Question: should not Kazan and Shulberg have ended the film with Malloy’s death? On his deathbed, Fr. Corriden, who was the special advisor on the set, said that during the filming of the entire film there was an indescribable feeling among those present that a curious force was helping to direct the film. When the film was shown to longshoremen, the one thing they said that did not ring true was that not one of them would have thrown garbage at a priest!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.