On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What playwright wrote the original screenplay for the film, and why is this playwright's involvement significant?

    Arthur Miller, an acclaimed playwright and close friend of Elia Kazan's, wrote the original screenplay for Elia Kazan to direct. Kazan and Miller had had a very fruitful and vibrantly creative relationship previously working on All My Sons, After the Fall and Death of A Salesman. However, Miller walked away from the project that would become On the Waterfront after Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, giving the names of artists he knew to be Communists. Miller was no longer involved with On the Waterfront and writing duties were passed over to Budd Schulberg.

    While Miller chose to not collaborate on this project and Kazan's choice to testify put a strain on the two men's friendship, Miller would later approve of Elia Kazan's work as a director. Miller and Kazan's approach to the HUAC at the time could not have been more different; while Kazan chose to testify, Miller refused to name names, which resulted in fines and jail time. His play The Crucible is interpreted as a condemnation of the crazed "witch hunt" around Communism in the mid 20th century, and his play A View from the Bridge, like On the Waterfront, takes on the subject of longshoremen, but takes a less sympathetic perspective on informing. The two men were never fully reconciled, and each represented one of two sides on the debate around Communism in the 1950s.

  2. 2

    What do the pigeons symbolize in the film?

    The pigeons, most directly, symbolize the longshoremen, caged in by their having to remain silent about dockside corruption. When Terry shows the pigeons to Edie, he seems to identify with the pigeons, particularly one which protects the others from attack by predatory hawks. The pigeons represent the dockworkers while the hawks represent Johnny Friendly and the mob. The symbol of the pigeon is complicated by the fact that the term "pigeon" refers to someone who informs on someone to the police (i.e. a stool pigeon). Thus, one can also interpret "pigeon" to mean someone who tells on people to the authorities.

  3. 3

    Why does Charley let Terry go at the end instead of delivering him to Johnny Friendly?

    Terry is Charley's kid brother, but his whole life Charley has manipulated him in order to help Johnny Friendly and ascend the ranks of the corrupt racket that Johnny runs. When Terry was a boxer, he had the skill and drive to win matches and become a successful fighter, but Terry would fix fights in accordance with Johnny's wishes, so that Johnny could win money that he had bet against Terry. In the cab when he is meant to bring Terry in to Johnny, Terry confronts Charley about his complicity with Johnny Friendly and the ways that Charley has betrayed him over the years and prevented him from being successful. For possibly the first time in his whole life, Charley feels remorse for holding his younger brother back, which leads him not to turn Terry in to Johnny, and instead lets him out of the cab. Unfortunately, it costs him his life.

  4. 4

    How does Marlon Brando embody the character of Terry?

    Marlon Brando is considered by many to be one of the greatest actors of all time, lauded for his raw authenticity, his realistic unselfconsciousness on camera, and his palpable emotionality. Among his many film credits, On the Waterfront is considered one of his most iconic performances. As Terry Malloy, Brando is at once tough as nails and vulnerably childlike. He perfectly captures the rough blue-collar energy of his character, speaking in a slurred macho speech pattern and shrugging off any kind of outward vulnerability. However, as his conscience starts to get the best of him, as he falls more deeply in love with Edie Doyle and heeds the words of Father Barry, Terry's vulnerability begins to show itself. Marlon Brando imbues his character with a deep feeling that underscores his inner conflict and difficult ethical position.

  5. 5

    What does Father Barry do to convince Terry Malloy to testify on behalf of the dockworkers?

    Throughout the film Father Barry witnesses the corruption taking place at the docks and wants to encourage the dockworkers to speak out against their oppressors. In Terry he finds a reluctant accomplice, and one who has some insider knowledge about the corruption of Johnny Friendly. Before Terry can stand up and advocate for workers' rights, however, Father Barry must convince him that he is on the right side of the argument, urging him to root himself in the "truth" and his own "conscience." At first, Terry shrugs off this encouragement, skeptical of Barry's concept of conscience, but eventually, he realizes that Father Barry is looking out for his best interests. Father Barry gives Terry a lot of "tough love" in order to get him to see the light. When Terry is holding up Johnny Friendly's bar at gunpoint following the murder of his brother Charley, Father Barry even goes so far as to Terry in the face to show him that he needs to wake up and start thinking more practically. As Father Barry assures him, Terry's best way out of the situation is to take his information to the Waterfront Crime Commission in order to break the cycle of corruption. Then again, at the end, when Johnny Friendly's men have beaten Terry to a pulp, Father Barry insists that Terry stand and walk in to work, so that he can serve as an example for the other men. Here as before he demonstrates a "tough love" mentality, and insists that Terry walk on his own to work, even though he is battered and bloodied.