eeOn the Waterfront is a classic, award-winning and controversial film. It received eight academy-awards in 1954, including best-picture and director. The director, Eliza Kazan, in collaboration with Budd Schulberg wrote the film’s screenplay. Based on actual dockside events in Hoboken, New Jersey, On the Waterfront is a story of a dock worker who tried to overthrow a corrupt union.
Marlon Brando superbly portrays the character of Terry Malloy. He is a young ex-prize fighter, now a dock worker given easy jobs because his brother is the right-hand man of the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly. After Terry unwittingly allows himself to be used in setting up a man’s death, he starts to question the basic assumptions if his life. This includes his loyalty to his brother and Johnny, who after all ordered him to take a dive in his big fight at Madison Square Garden.
The film’s controversy exists in the fact that Terry decides to testify against Johnny Friendly. His testimony attempts to show how it is fundamentally right to break group silence in a tough situation, even if a person appears to “rat” on his friends. To be at peace with oneself, Kazan seems to say, one must tell the truth, despite the fact that one will face ostracism, and, as in the film, probably be murdered. Kazan makes the hardships of testifying painfully clear. Thus, Brando’s character is a hero. However, a dark agenda exists behind the film’s plot.
On the Waterfront was made in 1954, two years after Kazan willingly testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952, Kazan named the names of eight friends and colleges allegedly affiliated with the communist party. Kazan was an active member of the communist party in the 1930s, until he went through a violent break with the party prior to the hearings. He said that communism could override a person’s intellect and beliefs. He also stated that Hollywood and Broadway heavily financed the party. Recounting his decision to testify, Kazan said, “Communists were in a lot of organizations–unseen, unrecognized, unbeknownst to anybody. I thought if I don’t talk, nobody will know about it.”
On the Waterfront is Kazan’s justification for his decision to testify. In the film, when a union boss shouts, “You ratted on us Terry,” Brando shouts back: “Maybe from where your standing, but I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it.” That reflects Kazan’s belief that communism was an evil that temporality seduced him and it was necessary to oppose it.Since Kazan believed that communism was an evil threat to the American way of life, he tried to portray his decision to testify as a heroic act of valor. He wanted to show the public that a person who testifies is brave, not a coward.
Throughout the film there are a number of references to the code of silence, “D n’ D”, or “Deaf and Dumb.” This means that no matter how wretched the circumstances are, a person never rats. The union thugs make a joke about the boy pushed off a building because he threatened to talk to the crime commission, thus breaking the sacred code of D n’ D: “A canary. Maybe he could sing but he couldn’t fly.”
Kazan has one character, in particular, stress the importance of speaking out in life. Father Barry believes that the truth will always set a person free. He says,
There’s one thing we’ve got in this country and that’s ways of fightin’ back. Gettin’
facts to the public. Testifying for what you know is right and what you know is wrong.
What’s rattin’ to them is telling the truth for you. Can’t you see that?Can’t
This quotation is an example of Kazan crying out to the public for forgiveness. Later in the film, Kazan tries even harder to gain acceptance, as there is an obvious parallel between his own testimony and Terry Malloy’s.
In the courtroom scene, Terry Malloy turns “stoolie” and betrays Friendly throughout his testimony. He tells the court that, on the night authorities discovered the body, someone pushed Joey Doyle from the roof. He states that he was the last person to see him alive, “except for the two thugs that murdered him.” Terry testifies that, after the murder, he went immediately to the Friendly Bar, where he expressed his feelings about the murder to Mr. Friendly. Terry is a hero because he made it possible for honest men to work at the docks, with job security and peace of mind. However, Terry’s struggle is just beginning. Friendly sums up Terry’s supposed fate with one sentence, “You’ve just dug your own grave.”
After the trial, Terry’s friends refuse to talk to him and he does not receive work. Neighborhood friend Tommy kills Terry’s pet pigeons on the rooftop. Tommy tosses the dead bird at Terry and shouts, “A pigeon for a pigeon.” People deride him and ostracize him as a “canary.” In interviews, Kazan discusses his identification with the Brando character.
“A lot of that kind of thing happened to me after I testified at HUAC,” said Kazan.
I was snubbed. People I knew well would look at me but not talk. People looked
down on me. They couldn’t except the fact that correctly or incorrectly it was
something I did out of principle.”
After the release of On the Waterfront, Kazan was open about his hidden motives, noble and shameful, to make the film. The scene near the end of movie, when Terry shouts to Friendly, “You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty stinkin’ mug. And I’m glad what I’ve done to you,” disturbed some people.Critics interpreted this to mean that Kazan was not sorry for his severely damaging testimony. It appeared that he had no remorse for his actions. For other viewers, the buried agenda of On the Waterfront tarnishes the picture. The critic John Rosenbaum told Roger Ebert that he could “Never forgive Kazan for using the film to justify himself.”
In later years, Kazan did eventually have remorse for the people whose lives he ruined and the blemish his testimony left on the whole film industry. In his 1988 autobiography he says, “I have some regrets about the human cost of it. One guy I told on I really like a lot.” Twenty years later, unlike On the Waterfront’s victorious ending, in Kazan’s picture The Visitor, a man also testifies against former friends; however, that movie ends on a note of despair. Perhaps the words of a legendary character he helped to create, haunted Kazan. As Terry Malloy said, “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”
1. Dirks, Tim. On the Waterfront: Greatest Films.
2. Cannon, Damian. On the Waterfront.