On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Pigeons (Symbol)

Pigeons are a multifaceted symbol in the film. On one level, pigeons symbolize the freedom that Terry wants. When he is at the rooftop pigeon coop, he tells a young boy, “Boy, they’ve got it made. Eating, sleeping, fly around like crazy, raise gobs of squabs.” But “stool pigeon” is also a euphemism for a police informer, someone who spies on a group on behalf of the police. After the men from the Waterfront Crime Commission question Terry initially, he angrily tells his fellow dockworkers “How do you like them mugs taking me for a pigeon?” In the context of the corruption on the docks and the fearful climate in which Terry works, where he will be expected to lie to protect the corrupt Johnny Friendly, being a “pigeon” is a bad thing. However, being a “pigeon” also represents a kind of freedom from such a coercive and corrupt situation, and Terry identifies with the pigeons and their plight. When Terry eventually decides to tell the police the truth, he liberates himself from Johnny’s influence, and is able to "fly free" as his own man.

More specifically, Terry’s “lead bird,” Swifty, is a stand-in for Terry himself, in that he is strong and protects the other vulnerable pigeons from aggressive invaders like the hawks. Just as the pigeons symbolize the vulnerable dockworkers, the hawks symbolize the coercive and corrupt mobsters.

Crucifixion (Allegory)

When he tries to appeal to the dockworkers' sense of morality, Father Barry often turns to Biblical allusions, seeking to show them the ways that their plight is aligned with that of the characters in the Bible. One such image from the Bible that Father Barry invokes is the idea of the Crucifixion. In the Bible, Jesus sacrifices his own life to protect the lives of others in the face of corrupt Roman soldiers. Christian theology holds that Jesus died for the sake of his followers, dying "for their sins," and acting as a martyr.

After Dugan's death, Father Barry compares the unnecessary deaths taking place in the community to crucifixions. He says to the men, "Taking Joey Doyle's life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that's a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead..." Thus, Dugan and Joey become stand-ins for Jesus Christ himself, they become heroic martyrs for a worthy cause.

The Entire Movie as Allegory for Kazan's Testifying in front of HUAC

While there is no explicit reference made to it in the movie itself, film buffs know that Elia Kazan saw On the Waterfront as his answer to those who criticized him for having testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a nation-wide investigative committee focused on exposing prominent American Communists. Having been a member of the Communist party for a year while working with the Group Theatre, Kazan saw it as his civic duty to name the names of 8 actors in front of the committee, ruining careers and clouding his reputation for the rest of his life. Elia Kazan's decision to name names was a controversial one, and he ended up losing many friends in the film industry, even his close friend, playwright Arthur Miller.

Knowing this background, On the Waterfront can easily be read as a justification for informing, and indeed, Kazan admitted as much when he was alive. Terry Malloy feels pressured to betray his own brother and his boss in order to do what is right and testify in front of a court. While he is very conflicted about his decision, Father Barry urges him to listen to his own principles and do what is right even if it is difficult. The film has a strong moral bent, heroizing the plight of a man who must act as a "pigeon" and turn people in for their wrong deeds. While the "wrong deeds" are applicable to a number of different circumstances, knowing Kazan's personal history with the Communist party and HUAC makes it clear that Terry Malloy is a stand-in for Kazan himself, and that the Waterfront Crime Commission is a fictional version of HUAC.

Edie's Glove (Symbol)

When Terry walks Edie home from the church, she drops her glove on the ground. The glove is an intimate article of clothing, feminine and delicate, and Terry picks it up and puts it on his own hand. In this moment the glove represents several things; it symbolizes Edie's femininity and vulnerability in contrast to Terry's brutish masculinity, first of all. Secondly, in putting the glove on his own hand, Terry shows Edie that being around her makes him more vulnerable and delicate himself. The glove on Terry's hand symbolizes the tenderness that Edie makes him feel, his desire to change and to be a better person, and their growing romance.

Boxing (Motif)

Boxing is a rather straightforward motif throughout the film. At the start, when Terry goes into Johnny Friendly's bar, the men are gathered around the television set watching boxing, and we see that it is a popular sport for the men who work at the waterfront. We soon learn that Terry himself was once a champion boxer, but he had to leave the sport. Later, we learn that the reason Terry left boxing because he was urged to lose a fight so that Johnny Friendly could win some money off him. Thus we see that boxing represents Terry's youth and his former ambitions and promise, which was corrupted and arrested by his association with Johnny, a man who only wants to profit. Terry "coulda been a contender," but had no agency in his own life, and was bought up by the immoral Johnny Friendly. In the final scene, Terry uses his skills as a fighter to attack Johnny Friendly, punching him on the docks, but predictably, Johnny skews the fight by enlisting his own men to step in as reinforcement and overpower Terry.