(All media is telling you something. This is the sixth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah. I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity. Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned! I will assume you have already watched this movie. Previous entry in series: The Deer Hunter.)
On The Waterfront
Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Writing, Best Director (Elia Kazan) – 1954
“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!” – Father Barry
On The Waterfront thinks that evil prevails when good men are more concerned about suffering for doing good than the good itself. On the Waterfront is in many ways a follow up to the thinking in Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan’s first Academy Award Best Picture winner (which will be discussed next in the series). Gentleman’s Agreement focused on the necessity of action in individual, small, everyday ways to combat society wide prejudice. On the Waterfront addresses the need for dynamic and bold action by community to protect itself.
On the Waterfront’s focus on how that bold change occurs centers on an appeal to authentic faith. Father Barry follows the quotation above by saying that anyone who stands by and sees a good man be punished for his goodness without doing anything about it is like the soldier who stood in front of a crucified Jesus and did nothing. On the Waterfront tells us that real Christianity acts. Doing nothing makes you complicit. You become just as guilty as if you were doing it yourself by not standing up for the good.
The film backs up this message through the story of its main character, Terry Malloy. Terry’s philosophy of life is simple, summed up in these snippets:
“Which side are you with?” – Edie
“Me? I’m with me, Terry.” – Terry
“Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else?” – Edie
“Boy, What a fruitcake you are! Hey, you wanna hear my philosophy of life? Do it to him before he does it to you” – Terry
Terry, however, in the glow of Edie’s goodness and love, is forced to come to grips that he was not just a nobody for his attitude. He realized that he was, in his words, a bum. He was a guy with no class.
On the Waterfront is passionate about Terry redeeming himself. In fact, the subtitle to the film on many of the advertisements was “The Redemption of Terry Malloy.” On the Waterfront tells us that redemption has a price, but it’s worth it. Redemption, according to the film, does not come from the barrel of a gun. It comes from being willing to suffer for good. Terry suffers terrible things for choosing to act towards good. He loses his job. He loses his brother. Ultimately, he takes a beating reminiscent of Jesus before the cross. Terry’s redemption is not unlike Jesus redemption of Peter after the resurrection for betraying Him in the courtyard. Terry is given a similar situation at the end of the film to choose a different path than he chose earlier, much like Peter. Instead of taking a fall for the easy money, Terry stands up after being knocked down.
On the Waterfront deals heavily with Christian themes. In fact, the movie is almost entirely a study of Christian ethics. It makes it fantastic to watch if you are looking to film to help you progress in being like Christ. The film is devastatingly poignant in revealing that the real reason we do nothing as Christians is often because it financially benefits us or we are cowards.
Father Barry’s speeches are the highlight of the film. After standing by and doing nothing in the beginning he realizes the falseness of his actions when compared to Christ. As he says, “If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront you’ve got another guess coming!” From that point, Father Barry declares that if anyone stands up for good then he will stand up for good with them no matter what the consequences. It reminds us of Christ being willing to share in our suffering. It also reminds us that our purposes are not earthly, but heavenly.
I like the Christianity in this film. The Christianity portrayed is valiant. It is courageous. It cares. It has an eye on the eternity. It also has earthly implications. It is defiant in the face of evil. It acts. Is it still that way today?
“If I spill, my life won’t be worth a nickel.” – Terry
“And how much is your soul worth if you don’t” – Father Barry