On the Waterfront

“Anybody who sits around and lets it happen and keeps silent about something that knows that happened, shares the guilt.” On the Waterfront demonstrates that evil prospers when good men do nothing. Do you agree?

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Elia Kazan’s black and white film, On the Waterfront, reveals that unrelenting evil and corruption can overwhelm a community, but there are those who have “the gift of standing up” in the face of injustice. Terry Malloy, the film’s protagonist, is a seemingly morally weak henchman of Johnny Friendly however he is guided on the path to moral awareness after forming positive relationships. Charley Malloy, Terry’s brother, is a prime example of how power can corrupt can individual, though he is forced to reassess his behaviour when faced with the truth. However, the longshoremen’s failure to act out against Johnny Friendly’s control over the waterfront exemplifies how evil can prevail when there is a lack of action to combat the issue of corruption.

Terry Malloy, a former boxer, makes the journey from being a character who is motivated by self-preservation to one who possesses an understanding of greater moral truth. He is initially depicted as a person who lives by the code of “standing with the right people so you have a little bit of change jinglin’ in your pocket”. Like many of the other longshoremen, he understands the importance of loyalty and adheres to the code of “D ‘n’ D”. Although he is uncomfortable with the role he played in the murder of Joey Doyle, he is aware of the potential repercussions of defying Johnny Friendly. However, once he starts a relationship with Edie Doyle, his view of “do it before he does it to you” is challenged. Terry begins to empowers himself with Edie’s principles upon trying on her white glove which emphasizes Terry’s slow transition from moral ambivalence towards a more morally righteous path. Later in the film, Terry wears Joey’s jacket, a symbol of acting in accordance with the demands of one’s conscience, and vows to testify in the trial against Johnny Friendly. Furthermore, Terry’s mission for justice is illustrated when he says, “I’m gonna go down there and get my rights” confirms the influence that Edie has had on him. His transformation from being a morally weak character who struggles against his conscience, his triumph in defeating Johnny reveals how that evil can easily
be eradicated through the course of action and justice.

Charley Malloy presents an example of how the desire for power can inevitably lead to corruption; he manages to achieve redemption through him in releasing Terry and protecting him from the wrath of Johnny Friendly. Due to Charley’s harsh upbringing in the grim environment of the waterfront, he is a person who is motivated by money and seeks out relationships for financial benefits. He encourages Terry not to testify and instead accept a more prestigious job offer in where Terry would not “have to lift a finger”. However, after Terry blames his brother for taking away his opportunities – “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum… it was you, Charley” – Charley is forced to reassess his priorities over the last past few years. He manages to redeem himself when he tells Terry that he would tell Johnny that he will “tell him that I couldn’t bring you in” as an apology for not “look[ing] out” for Terry. Charley is aware of the consequences that his choice will bring and the danger that he is placing himself in, but through his acknowledgement of how he prevented his brother from having the chance to be successful, he achieves the ultimate redemption in where he is crucified for his choice to let Terry go. Charley’s death reinforces the notion that although through corruption and injustice provided Charley with opportunities to make a success out of himself, it is by taking a stand in the face of inequality and redeeming yourself for your past wrongdoing which allows goodness to prevail.

Despite Terry and Charley’s stand in the face of injustice, a majority of the workers on the docks exemplify the very notion that profound immorality and wicked deeds will dominate when there is a lack of action taken. Even when Joey is found dead at the hands of Johnny Friendly’s men, a majority of the waterfront workers still continue to submit to the will of Johnny Friendly and his henchmen, including Joey’s own father, Pop. Even Pop Doyle’s son’s death does not dissuade him to stray away from the code of “deaf and dumb” – instead Pop chooses to bemoan that Joey did not listen to his advice about remaining silent. The arrival of the Waterfront Crime Commission investigating Joey’s death is met with resistance signifying their powerlessness against the corrupt world of the docks. During the congregation meeting at the church, which comprised of Father Barry and the longshoremen, many of the longshoremen refuse to speak out against the mob, which reveals how fearful they are of standing up for themselves. Father Barry is informed of the code of “D and D” and that “no matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat”. The silence of the waterfront workers in the face of the crime and corruption infiltrating the longshoremen worker unions display how by through the idleness of the workers unwilling to speak out against injustice, it is easy for depravity and wrongdoing to run rampant when there is silence.

The notion that corruption and wrongdoing is rampant when there is inaction from bystanders is reinforced in Elia Kazan’s film, On the Waterfront. However, there are those who have the moral strength to assert their beliefs in the face of injustice, which is evident through the character of Terry. Terry makes the dramatic transformation from being a morally troubled man who lives by a code of self-preservation and is afraid to cause trouble, into a person who embarks on a more morally righteous path, guided by Edie. His brother, Charley, has always seeked out relationships for the comforts and benefits it offers him, thus being a prime example of how power can lead to corruption. However, like Terry, Charley manages to achieve a state of redemption by acknowledging his wrongdoings. Charley and Terry exemplify how although evil is evident in the film, it can be eradicated through the course of action and injustice. However, the inaction of the longshoremen in the face of immorality and their adherence to the code of deaf and dumb emphasise the very notion that corruption and wrongdoing will always exist, when people stand idly by when something is wrong.

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