The Best Picture Winners: On the Waterfront (1954)

| October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

So, Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

There has rarely ever been one artistic statement that divides those who choose to study it than Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.  It seems, on the surface to be a well-made good-versus-evil parable, a story about conscience, about doing what is right in the face of personal ruin and the threat of violence and death.  But given the texture of the times, when the House Un-American Activities Commission was terrorizing Hollywood into submission, the movie appears to some to be something sinister, a statement made by a director who sold his friends and colleagues out to save his own skin.

On the Waterfront was the first film made by Elia Kazan after he testified to HUAC because (he said) he felt his conscience pushing against him.  This film was his defense of his actions.  In that, many feel that it damages the picture somehow, that the film is a screed against those who refused to testify. This is best seen at the film’s climax, in which the corrupt union boss played by Lee J. Cobb shouts at Brando’s Terry Malloy: “You ratted on us, Terry,” to which the dock worker shouts his defense: “I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it!”

Kazan said that he felt that Communism was evil and his defense would follow him the rest of his life and label him as a turncoat by leftists who never forgave him – 45 years later, in 1999,when he was given a lifetime achievement award at the 71st Annual Academy Awards, some celebrities in the audience refused to stand an applaud.

Does Kazan’s defense of his actions hurt the picture?  It depends on where you stand.  Watching the film you can certainly feel a film artist’s boiling passion for what was happening both in the country and in the film industry at the time of the McCarthy hearings. For me (and forgive me if this sounds a bit simple-minded) it affirms that a film artist can make an effective personal statement even if we disagree with him.  At its heart On the Waterfront is a story about conscience, about a man who has thrown away the better parts of his soul, giving in to a corrupt system rather than standing up and doing what is right.  “Conscience. that stuff can drive you nuts,”  Terry says.

The conscience lays just under the skin, and often Malloy gives in.  He is a Hoboken dock worker who watches the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) bully and murder those around him who won’t comply.  As the movie opens, Terry is complicit in an act that sense one man to his death.  That death is on his conscious and it begins a chain of events that forces him to look inward, to realize that has not only sold his soul but his manhood.  Once he was a promising boxer who threw the fight of his life and ended up a middle-square dock worker who faded dreams ride heavy on his shoulders.

In that (again I’m being simplistic) it’s the story of a man who has to take a risk, an man who has a chance to redeem his soul.  Whether he testifies against the corrupt mob boss or not is less important than the weight that he will carry if he doesn’t stand up for himself.  That’s a universal story.  Does it speak to Kazan’s actions?  That’s for history to decide, but what he made is a story about concious, manhood, personal identity and the ways in which moral choices are neither black or white, that fear can weaken even the strongest contender.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.