Who’s Your Brother, and Where’s Your Church?: On the Waterfront and Social Obligation

Warning: mild spoilers below:

Are you your brother’s keeper?

Is there a value beyond looking out for one’s self? Is life basically about putting your own needs first, or is there something more to life, to spirituality, to solidarity, to citizenry than looking out for number one? Or are people who think so just playing a mug’s game? These are some of the questions that On the Waterfront, a 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, tries to answer. And the film’s not subtle about these themes either, not one bit.

The film takes place in a major metropolitan city, presumably New York, on the docks, in a church, in bars and pool halls, and in the tenements. The longshoremen who work the docks every day are strong in brawn but weak in spirit. They’ve been beaten by life, by the fact that there’s almost always more hands to work than there is work that needs to be done, and by Johnny Friendly and his men.

Who’s Johnny? (Lee J. Cobb). He’s a Johnny-come-lately (#sorrynotsorry), who has muscled his way into being the union boss and the mob boss of the longshoremen. His gang asks the dockworkers to take loans with interest from the mob. You don’t want aloan? Then you don’t get to work. Friendly’s got a number of rackets, a dozen ways or more to skim off the top. And as far as his answer to the questions above?: you’d have to be crazy to look out for anyone other than number one. (You can just hear Cobb say “crazy” in his angry, high pitched voice, can’t you?)

On the Waterfront 3

His right hand man, Charley, as he counts the boss’s payday in the poolroom, explains the philosophy very clearly: “Why shouldn’t we? [take the money]. If we c’n get it, we’re entitled to it.” In other words, to the victor goes the spoils. History is written by the winners. F**k you, I’ve got mine. Might is right. If I can take it, then it’s mine. That sort of thing. That’s the ethos.

Of course, not everyone shares Charley and Johnny’s philosophy. On the diametrically opposite side of the spectrum is Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint. She’s a college student basically, at a Catholic school, and she’s come back into the city at a time that her brother, Joey, fears for his life. He ought to be afraid because he’s going to testify against Friendly and his men, and that’s not a violation that keeps you off the docks . . . that’s a betrayal that puts you into an early grave.

Edie expresses her viewpoint early in the film with this question, “Isn’t everybody part of everybody else”? For her, we are all ethically obligated to each other. Of course, that’s what she’s read in her books and heard from the nuns. As she tells her father, this is real life, and it’s teaching her something she can’t walk away from so easily. Is her approach the right one?

And that’s where the plot begins.

Brothers, Sisters, and Obligations

Each of the characters in On the Waterfront has to decide how to react to Joey’s death. There’s his father, who has to decide between avenging his son’s death or just keeping his head down and to keep working. There’s a wisecracking dockworker, Nolan, who wants to testify, but knows what happened to Joey. There’s Edie, who has to decide whether to forget her brother’s death and go back to quietude with the nuns (sisters) at a catholic college or stay and fight for the truth.

And then there’s Terry and Father Barry.

Who’s Terry (Marlon Brando)? Oh, didn’t I tell you? He’s the brother of Friendly’s right hand man, Charley. He’s also the one who unwittingly leads Edie’s brother, Joey, to hisdeath. He is morally implicated in Joey’s death and has every reason to keep quiet (cushy job; desire to not have “an accident”; sense of pride). But he’s got a conscience, and every time he talks to Father Barry and to Edie, he loses his nerve just a bit more. He also has a big chip on his shoulder–but you’ll need to watch the film to find out why.


Oh and then there’s Father Barry (Karl Malden). He can stay safe in his church and hide behind his collar, or he can view his church as the city, including the docks. This would mean trying to bring Joey’s killer’s to justice, which means directly taking on the corrupt mob.

To do that though would be to put his life (and other lives) in harm’s way. He has a difficult choice to make. Where is his church? Who are his brothers and his sisters? Just the clergy and nuns? Or is Joey’s mother, Joey’s sister, and the workers on the dock his siblings too? Is his church with stained glass windows, or is it down on the docks?

Early in the film Father Barry tells Edie to come by the church if she needs his help. She lays into him with fierce eyes and an unforgiving tongue: “‘In the church when you need me?’ Was there ever a saint who hid in the Church?”  The priest feels condemned, much like Joey, not so much from the words of others, as much as by his own increasingly panged conscience.


Everyone’s got a brother problem. Edie’s got a brother problem. The longshoremen have got a brother problem. Terry’s got all kinds of brother problems (Charley and Joey). Things get complicated for Charley who loves his biological brother but also his brother in crime (Friendly), and the Father has to decide who all counts as his brother, his sister, and his Church.

This is a film about what it means to be a citizen, and whether being a patriot is simply a mug’s game. It’s a film about what it means to be a Christian, and whether that has anything to do with people’s real world experiences. It’s about whether the place where these characters live is just a place where you try to get by and avoid the wrath of low rent mob bosses, or whether it’s a place where the truth matters, solidarity counts for something, and the rule of law holds firm.

The film asks its characters–and by extension its viewers–who is my brother, and am I his keeper? Not one character gets out of this film without facing that question head on. And as viewer, there’s no way–at least not, in my estimation–to watch this film without considering those issues yourself.

Other things to consider:

McCarthyism and On the Waterfront

Many people have seen the film as a not-so-subtle commentary on the McCarthy hearings. Most films about McCarthyism either directly or indirectly take the position of defending those who refused to testify, The Crucible (1996), Trumbo (2015), The Front (1976) or valorize the press–Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)–or ridicule McCarthy himself, The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

On the Waterfront very famously takes a very different approach. Both Kazan and Schulberg testified and named names in the HUAC hearings, and some people see this film as a subtle defense of their decisions. Kazan stated very clearly that that’s exactly what he had in mind, whereas Schulberg saw that interpretation as reductive, and that these characters have rich and nuanced relationships with each other. From his perspective, it’s a story that stands on its own.

Personally, I think it can be both at the same time (apologetics for naming names and a piece of art in its own right). What do you think?

Yet more thoughts:

Acting: It’s hard to know who’s performance to point to most in this film. I think Lee Cobb’s portrayal of Johnny Friendly is nuanced enough that you can see him as more than just an evil figure. He’s got a history, a childhood, a desperation that makes him act the way he does. That raises the story’s drama, significantly, and puts his performance as the best in the film for me.

Screenwriting: There are several wonderful speeches in this film, especially by Terry and the Father.

Sound: Be on the lookout for the scene between Terry and Edie that makes very good use of sound during a conversation between the two of them. You’ll know it when you see it. Very clever use of sound.

Casablanca: I’m seeing a lot of similarities between Rick from Casablanca and Terry from On the Waterfront. Both characters have to choose between looking out for number one and looking out for the greater good. There’s also the way in which both characters’ journey involves a love interest that complicates their desire and their ethical sensibilities.

Cinematography: The cinematography is of note as well. For instance, the photo above of Father Barry uses lighting in a rather obvious but nonetheless effective way.

Language: pigeon, D and D, canary, and on and on. There’s a lot of interesting language in this film.

What did you notice about this film? What are your thoughts?

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