This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
One of the most powerful and inspiring films of all time is Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront. Starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, it masterfully conveys the longing we each have for love and respect amidst guilt and the acute knowledge of our brokenness. It also powerfully expresses the truth that every single thing we do to each other affects Christ Himself.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an insecure ex-boxer and dock worker in New Jersey who is helplessly involved with the Mob because of his brother Charley’s (Rod Steiger) friendship with the Mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). When he unwittingly helps the Mob murder a man, his soul is wracked with guilt, especially when he meets and begins to fall in love with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered man. Edie’s quiet beauty and caring femininity warms Terry’s troubled heart in a way that it has never been warmed before, and while he wants to be honest with her, he fears losing her if he tells her that he was partially responsible for her brother’s death.
It takes Edie a while to warm up to Terry, especially when she hears his rather cowardly philosophy of life: “Do it to him before he does it to you.” While Edie has seen a lot in her day and is by no means naive, she still has a pure love for each of her fellow human beings and believes in the ultimate goodness of Man. “Isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?” she asks Terry thoughtfully. Terry thinks she is nuts for being that caring, but he also cannot help being attracted to her because of it. He himself longs to know that he is loved and cared for, but nobody in his life has ever really shown him that he is. Not even his older brother.
As Terry’s relationship with Edie gradually blossoms, his conscience bothers him more and more for not telling her about his involvement with her brother’s murder. He confesses his guilt to Father Barry (Karl Malden), the hard-nosed waterfront priest whose sermons boldly speak out against the injustices of the Mob. While Father Barry understands Terry’s fear of losing Edie, he tells him that if he really loves her and wants his conscience to be relieved, he must tell her the truth. Not wanting to listen to Father Barry but knowing that he is right, Terry summons up the courage to tell Edie the truth. While her verbal reaction is drowned out by a nearby foghorn, her face shows that she is clearly shocked and horrified, and Terry fears that he has lost her forever.
Even if Terry cannot re-win Edie’s affection, he knows that he cannot let himself be pushed around by the Mob any longer. He begins to seriously contemplate testifying against the Mob’s crimes in court, and the Mob catches on to his plans. In the film’s most famous scene, Terry sits in the backseat of a cab with his brother Charley and is informed that unless he promises not to testify in court, he will be killed. Overcome with frustration at his brother, whose selfishness ruined his boxing career and dragged him into Mob life, Terry exclaims, “You don’t understand! I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it!”
While perhaps Terry was never really loved as a boxer, he at least was admired, and now he has neither love nor admiration. He chastises Charley for not loving and looking out for him like an older brother should, and he wants desperately for him to understand that if he testifies against the Mob in court, he will hopefully win back both the love of Edie and of his own conscience; there is no other choice he is willing to make. Charley has mercy on his little brother and nobly does not hand him over to be killed. Instead, he himself is brutally killed by the Mob for failing to do what they asked him, and he dies a martyr for brotherly love.
Terry visits Edie and gladly discovers that despite his glaring imperfections and involvement with her brother’s death, she still loves him deeply. Empowered by her love and the anger he feels at his brother’s murder, Terry speaks out against the Mob’s many covered-up murders in court and destroys Boss Johnny Friendly’s authority over the docks. While he gets quite bloodied up in a climactic fist fight with Johnny and still has reason to fear for his life, Terry is now a much happier man than he has ever been before. By courageously doing the right thing and sticking up for his fellow Man, he finally finds the love and respect that he has been craving his whole life.
Another poignant theme at the crux of On the Waterfront is the necessity of seeing Christ in every single person we encounter. When a dock worker dies in an “accident” staged by the Mob, Father Barry is infuriated and delivers a powerfully memorable sermon to the surviving dock workers and the Mob members who are too cowardly to own up to their crimes. He tells them quite passionately, “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well they better wise up!… Every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, 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 that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.”
Father Barry’s powerful sermon echoes Jesus’s own words about serving Him by serving the least of His brothers and sisters, and it is a crucial reminder to us all that we need to embrace love, not cowardice, in our day-to-day lives. Terry Malloy and his brother Charley embraced cowardice for quite a long time, but through the inspiration of Father Barry and their own consciences, they finally find the courage to choose love and be the heroes they need to be.
On the Waterfront is truly a classic film worth savoring, for its themes of our human longing for love and our need to look out for each other are timeless and extremely relevant. Terry Malloy is an immensely broken human being, but with the help of the love that God shows him through the persons of Edie and Father Barry, he is healed enough to become the hero he needs to be. This should give every one of us hope, for while we are all broken and wounded in some way or another, the grace of God can always render us capable of true heroism.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.