On the Galilee: Christian Themes and Imagery in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (December 2007)

The award winning film, On the Waterfront, like all great Christian tales, is a story of personal redemption; it is also the classical heroic story of one man’s struggle to triumph over evil.   As a Christian hero, for the protagonist Terry Malloy, it is essential that, before he can confront his nemesis, he must first triumph against his own corrupted, fallen nature.  He does this with the help of two spiritual tutors who, through love and perseverance, guide him toward righteousness.

Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, the story centers round a group of Longshoremen in the New York City waterfront of the 1950’s.  Riddled with corruption, their union has ceased to serve the needs of its members and has become a vehicle to enrich its leaders through their control of the flow of goods through the port.  They exert this control through fear, intimidation, and occasionally murder.  The union boss is the ironically named Johnny Friendly – the manifestation of evil personified who garishly wears the Seven Deadly Sins like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  Against this backdrop, ex-pug Terry Malloy, the brother of Friendly’s right-hand man Charley, himself a low level member of the mob in control of the union becomes disillusioned with its corruption, particularly his part in it.

One of the two main characters who use appeals to Christian principles to convince Terry to come clean about union malfeasance is Edie Doyle, the sister of Joey Doyle – the first dockworker murdered by the mob for cooperating with the Waterfront Commission’s investigation of corruption in the union – a murder in which Terry unwittingly participated.  While discussing moral principles over a pint, Terry says, “Want to hear my philosophy?  Do it to him before he does it to you.”  To which she replies “Our Lord said just the opposite.”  His response, a classic example of ironic foreshadowing, is, “I’m not looking to get crucified; I’m looking to stay in one piece” (63).  It is this armor of selfish cynicism which she and Father Barry, the local parish priest must chip away.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the homily/eulogy delivered by Father Barry over the body of the “martyred” Kayo Dugan – Johnny Friendly’s second murder victim in the film.  In this speech he says that taking a man’s life “to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion” and that “anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened-shares the guilt of it…”  He says that Christ sees “them selling their souls to the mob for a day’s pay” (79).  And when Terry later pleads, “If I spill [my guts], my life won’t be worth a nickel,” Father Barry responds, “How much is your soul worth if you don’t” (87).

The power of this scene derives not only from its emotional impact, but the way in which, through fidelity to Catholic doctrine, it transforms the worker’s struggle from a mere socio-economic one in which the men can feel free to play by Friendly’s rules (if doing so is the condition for getting paid) to an objectively moral one in which their acquiescence is inherently evil.  Viewed in this context, to not resist Friendly is a sin of omission, thus it is a moral duty for Christians on the dock to testify against him regardless of the personal peril such testimony will entail.  This moment is transformative: both by his words and the example of his courage the men begin to coalesce around the idea of standing up to the mob boss and his goons.  Indeed, it is here that Terry Malloy, the heretofore conflicted “bum” who unwittingly led Joey Doyle to his death on Friendly’s orders defends Father Barry by punching out one of his persecutors – union thugs who try to intimidate the priest into silence.  Ultimately, however, the other men will require one more nudge-this time from one of their own-before they are fully ready to oppose Friendly.

The end of this scene contains the rather dramatic visual image of Father Barry being hoisted aloft out of the ship’s hold reminiscent of the Ascension of Christ into Heaven forty days after His Resurrection from the dead.

There is, in addition to Father Barry’s admonitions and example, another force at work within the hearts of the men which both Edie Doyle and Father Barry seek to exploit by chiseling away the layers of worldly cynicism obscuring its presence: conscience.  On different occasions, both the priest and Edie appeal to Terry’s conscience to convince him to serve the interests of justice.  When Terry is wrestling with the dilemma of betraying his crooked friends and brother on the one hand or going to the authorities to bring the killers to justice and liberate the workers from the union’s tyranny on the other, Father Barry say’s, “I’m not asking you to do anything, Terry.  It’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.”  To which Terry replies ruefully, “conscience…I didn’t even know I had one until I met you and Edie…this conscience stuff can drive you nuts” (89).

The concept of conscience is an important one in Catholic theology.  It is through this mechanism that those not formally schooled in The Law may still abide by its precepts.  The New Testament states that doers and not merely hearers of the law shall be justified.  It says that when those “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law “ it is this “law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” that guides them to righteousness (Romans 2:12-15).  In is also written: “I will put my law into their hearts” (Hebrews 10:16).  Since Terry does not appear to be a church-going man steeped in Christian moral teaching, it is this law, written in his heart, which he must ultimately choose over his baser impulse of self-preservation through accommodation of evil.  And it is to this Law of Conscience which his mentors appeal in their effort to enlist his leadership in the struggle against the evil Johnny Friendly.

When their appeals finally wear him down and he decides to testify against his former boss, his brother Charley is murdered as punishment.  Enraged, Terry grabs a gun and hunts for Friendly to visit vengeance upon him.  Once more Father Barry must intervene and guide him back to the Christian Way for “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

Just as in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus rebukes Peter for using his sword to cut off the ear of Malchus – a servant of the high priest – when he came to arrest Him (John 18:10), Father Barry scolds Terry for seeking to avenge his brother’s murder through violence: “You want to fix him for what he did to Charley?  Fight him tomorrow in the courtroom – with the truth…” This admonition is a theologically profound one since, a short time before Gethsemane, at the last supper, Jesus had said to His Disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  By giving testimony to the commission at great personal risk rather than seeking violent retribution, Terry will be fighting for justice not merely with the truth of his testimony, but also with The Incarnate Truth of Christ, for as Father Barry had said “Christ is always with you” (83).

The period of time between Gethsemane and the Resurrection was, for the followers of Jesus, one of fear, trepidation, and betrayal demonstrated most poignantly by the denials of St. Peter as foretold by his Master.  After the Resurrection and anointing by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost they were emboldened by faith and the example of Christ’s sacrifice to “pick up their crosses and follow Him” (Mark 8:34).  What followed were great acts of courage and self-sacrifice; all they needed was His example to follow.  Likewise, the workers on the dock need more than just the words of Father Barry to embolden them to action; they require a leader whose example they can follow.  Terry Malloy becomes that leader.

When he first confronts Johnny Friendly after testifying, Terry is utterly alone; no one has the physical or moral courage to stand with him.  Alone he faces the mob boss and his henchmen in a scene that is striking in its visual parallels with the Catholic Stations of the Cross: like Jesus, Terry alone but undaunted willingly accepts his scourging (though in his case, Terry, unlike Christ Who was born for the Cross, fights back); Edie, like St. Veronica, wipes his face to ease the pain; Fr. Barry, like St. Simon of Cyrene, helps him to his feet.  And after witnessing this act of courageous and righteous defiance of evil, the workers on the dock, like faithful Christians following Jesus after His resurrection, fall in dutifully behind Terry as he walks through the threshold and into the pier in triumph.  Like Christ, he was beaten but not defeated.

In the beginning Terry Malloy was a sinner, a bum, and a follower.  Through faith and repentance he is transformed into a leader and a man of high ideals and principles.  He has picked up his cross and followed Him and in the process, like the young David, he has slain a giant.

Works Cited

King James Bible.  Atlanta: Lionheart Books, Ltd.  2000.

Schulberg, Budd.  On the Waterfront.  Hollywood, Ca: Samuel French Trade, 1980.

About michaelstjoseph

Michael St. Joseph is the pen-name of a Catholic conservative citizen of the greatest country in the history of civilization. He has a law enforcement background and lives with his family in the New York area. He can be reached at michaelst.joseph@yahoo.com.
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