On The Waterfront Conflict Essay

The central conflict of On the Waterfrontis the rampant corruption of the dockworker's union. Crooked and coercive violence is ubiquitous, and in the first five minutes of the film, a man is killed for almost speaking out against the corruption. If Johnny Friendly's racket is defined by an unfair fight, Terry Malloy's journey is defined by his search for a fair one. A former champion fighter, Terry was at his best in the boxing ring, fighting a man with his bare hands. His whole career went away and the glory of being a fighter was compromised when Johnny Friendly came into his life, bought a piece of him, and began using the boxing ring as an arena for placing bets. Terry had to give up the boxing ring, the locus of the fair fight, on the urging of his own brother, then got caught up in the corrupt racket of Johnny Friendly's mob. At the end, Terry finally confronts Johnny face to face and punches him, looking to start a fair fight. His desire to fight Johnny with his bare hands is again undermined by Johnny Friendly's corruption, as Johnny enlists the thuggish force of his mobster henchmen to knock the wind out of Terry. Terry eventually stands and walks to work, however, symbolizing the triumph of the honest man over the corrupt leader.

Terry's psychic journey is a confused and conflicted one throughout. While he is part of Johnny Friendly's inner circle, which affords him a certain amount of protection, he wants to be able to speak out against what he sees as the corruption taking place at the docks. Finally, with the death of Joey Doyle, Terry is motivated to confront this injustice. Father Barry, longing to help clean the docks of corruption, encourages Terry to listen to his "conscience." Terry's conscience is another term for his connection to his own ethical thinking, his ability to fight for what is right. At first, Terry resists Father Barry's encouragement to listen to his conscience, shrugging it off and resenting the word. Eventually, however, he realizes that his conscience is the strongest asset he has, and that by doing the right thing he can save himself as well as all the dockworkers, so that they can secure the right to fair working conditions and a life without fear.

In contrast to Terry's conscience and his desire for a "fair fight" is Johnny Friendly's endless corruption. The union has long been controlled by Johnny Friendly, who keeps most of the dock's earnings for himself and takes care of the select few in his inner circle, neglecting the needs of the common workers and threatening to murder anyone who speaks out against him. Johnny Friendly is the image of the corrupt dictator, one who keeps everything for himself and harms his own dependents. Corruption is pervasive on the waterfront. While Johnny and his men wear expensive clothes and diamond rings and do hardly any work, many honest dockworkers are denied work on a daily basis. The system is skewed to favor those who align themselves with the mob and with undermining justice, making corruption a major theme of the film.

In order to maintain order and strengthen the corruption of the docks, the union bosses must keep the dockworkers both quiet about what they see and as ignorant as possible of the system of corruption. In order to avoid punishment (or almost certain death), the dockworkers must remain "deaf and dumb," meaning they must not give up any information to the authorities or anyone who asks, even if they know that it's the right thing to do. For instance, when Joey Doyle is murdered, many of the dockworkers know what happened to him and why—indeed, he was murdered precisely for his refusal to remain "deaf and dumb"—but no one speaks out, for fear of being killed themselves. Enforcing a culture of silence and acceptance is how Johnny Friendly is able to keep control of his men, even if they know that what he is doing is immoral.

Edie Doyle is determined to discover who killed her brother Joey. After she walks home from the church with Terry, she tells her father that she doens't want to go back to her school where she is training to become a teacher. While Mr. Doyle and her mother wanted Edie to get an education so that she could be upwardly mobile and would not be trapped in the corrupt circumstances that have held them back, Edie is too angry about her brother's murder simply to go back to school and forget about it. She tells her father that she cannot continue to think about issues "that are just in books, that aren’t people living," as long as corruption is so powerful in Hoboken. Her desire to be where there are "people living" shows that she is committed to helping clean up the waterfront and make other people's lives better, not just her own. Hoboken, where there are "people living," contrasts with her school, where she will possibly be able to improve her situation, but won't be able to make any impactful change or learn who is responsible for the unjust killing of Joey.

Though the film centers on the issues of corruption and crime surrounding the lives of the dockworkers, another major theme of the film is love. Edie and Terry are an unlikely pair, in that he is rough and uneducated and she is demure and ambitious. In spite of their differences (or perhaps because of them), they fall in love with each other, and reach a tender understanding. Each of them feels vulnerable in new ways with the other, and their bond is strong and galvanizing. Indeed, part of what motivates each of them to continue fighting to expose Johnny Friendly is their love and respect for one another. Edie's connection to Terry is partially responsible for her decision not to return to college, and Terry's decision to testify against Johnny is his knowledge that Johnny had Edie's brother killed. The film is dramatic and suspenseful at moments, but it is also defined by its central romance. Edie and Terry's courtship is charming and romantic, as they dance the night away in a dive bar, finding solace from their difficult lives in one another's embrace.

Father Barry and Edie often implore Terry to listen to his own "conscience," but another important pillar of the advice they give him is a belief in a sturdy and immovable "truth." While the corrupt world of Johnny Friendly has rendered the definition of truth somewhat unstable, Father Barry and Edie insist that there is a truth that must be exposed, and that Terry is the man to do so. Terry is reluctant even to consider the meaning of the word truth. When Edie confronts him directly about what happened to her brother, he snaps at her, "Quit worrying about the truth all the time. Worry about yourself.” Then later, when Father Barry scolds Terry for holding up Johnny's bar at gunpoint, he insists that Terry's much more effective weapon is his grasp of the truth, saying, "You’ll fight him in the courtroom tomorrow with the truth, as you know the truth.” The truth is the strongest weapon in the film, stronger than Johnny's thugs and stronger than a pistol.

full title · On the Waterfront

director ·  Elia Kazan

leading actors/actresses ·  Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb

supporting actors/actresses ·  Pat Henning, John Hamilton, James Westerfield, Leif Erickson

type of work ·  Motion Picture

genre ·  Gritty gangster film; authentic social reality film

language ·  English

time and place produced · 1954; Hoboken, New Jersey, and New York City


 · 1955 Academy Awards:

 ·  Winner, Best Picture

 ·  Winner, Best Director (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Winner, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg)

 ·  Winner, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando)

 ·  Winner, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint)

 ·  Winner, Best Cinematography, Black and White (Boris Kaufman)

 ·  Winner, Best Film Editing (Gene Milford)

 ·  Winner, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White (Richard Day)

 ·  Nominated, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Lee J. Cobb)

 ·  Nominated, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden)

 ·  Nominated, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Rod Steiger)

 ·  Nominated, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Leonard Bernstein)

 · 1955 Golden Globes:

 ·  Winner, Best Motion Picture, Drama

 ·  Winner, Best Director (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Winner, Best Motion Picture Actor, Drama (Marlon Brando)

 ·  Winner, Best Cinematography, Black and White (Boris Kaufman)

 · 1954 New York Film Critics Circle:

 ·  Winner, Best Film

 ·  Winner, Best Director (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Winner, Best Actor (Marlon Brando)

 · 1954 National Board of Review:

 ·  Winner, Best Picture

 · 1955 Directors Guild of America:

 ·  Winner, Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Plaque, Assistant Director (Charles H. Maguire)

 · 1955 Writers Guild of America:

 ·  Winner, Best Written America Drama, Screen (Budd Schulberg)

 · 1954 Venice Film Festival:

 ·  Winner, Italian Film Critics Award (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Winner, Silver Lion (Elia Kazan)

 ·  Nominated, Golden Lion (Elia Kazan)

 · 1955 BAFTA Awards (British Film and TV):

 ·  Winner, Best Foreign Actor (Marlon Brando)

 ·  Nominated, Best Film from Any Source

 ·  Nominated, Most Promising Newcomer (Eva Marie Saint)

 · 1955 Bodil Awards (Denmark):

 ·  Winner, Best American Film (Elia Kazan, director)

 · 1989 National Film Preservation Board:

 ·  Registered, National Film Registry

date of release ·  July 1954

producer ·  Sam Spiegel

setting (time) · 1950s

setting (place) ·  Hoboken, New Jersey

protagonist ·  Terry Malloy

major conflict ·  Terry Malloy must decide whether to inform the Waterfront Crime Commission about the corrupt leadership of the Longshoreman’s Union, which would risk his employment and his life, or to stay silent, which would poison his conscience and have untold effects on his life.

rising action ·  As Terry Malloy struggles with his decision, his blossoming relationship with Edie Doyle, the passionate support of Father Barry, and the revealing taxicab conversation with his brother Charlie all push him toward realizing that he has only one choice for his own conscience.

climax ·  When Johnny Friendly’s gang murders his brother Charlie, Terry realizes the inescapable cycle of union corruption and vows to make the union pay whatever the cost, now that he’s felt the pain personally.

falling action ·  Though in his rage Terry wants to murder all the goons he can find, Father Barry convinces him to rise above their level and testify in court to the Waterfront Crime Commission the next day, which he does. He then goes down to the docks to confront Friendly.

themes ·  Informing as the correct moral choice; the transforming power of faith; power corrupts

motifs ·  The rooftop as retreat from the world; Crucifixion dialogue; “D & D”: Deaf and Dumb

symbols ·  Hudson River; pigeons; hooks; gloves


 ·  Joey Doyle sticks his head out of his apartment window to answer Terry Malloy’s call from the street, and that answer brings his death. Much later, Malloy finds himself in the same position, sticking his head out of Edie’s window to answer a dark call from the street, which leads to the discovery of his brother’s corpse.

 ·  Kayo Dugan wishes daily that the stevedores could unload crates of crisp Irish whiskey instead of bananas, which they unload every day. The day a ship finally arrives with a cargo of Irish whiskey is the day the gang murders Dugan on the job—by dropping a crate of whiskey on his head.

 · After Joey Doyle’s murder, Pops Doyle gives Joey’s jacket to Dugan, suggesting that perhaps now Dugan has a mark on him. After Dugan’s murder, the jacket is given back to Edie. On the final scene at the docks, Malloy grabs Joey’s jacket and wears it in front of all.

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