Classic Film ‘On The Waterfront’ Holds Timeless Lessons for Today’s Struggles

Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of Terry Malloy in “On The Waterfront” (1954) not only cements the film’s status as one of the greatest ever made but also imparts timeless lessons for today’s societal challenges. At its heart, the film explores the theme of following one’s conscience, even when faced with overwhelming social pressures, and the consequences of such choices.

The narrative revolves around Terry Malloy, a dock worker who unwittingly becomes an accessory to a mob hit. Faced with the moral weight of his actions, Terry is initially swayed by corrupt influences, including his older brother and the mob boss Johnny Friendly. However, he ultimately finds guidance from the victim’s sister, Edie, and a principled street-smart priest, Father Barry. The film underscores the moral duty to stand up against corruption and injustice, even at the risk of one’s job, reputation, or life.

Director Elia Kazan, who faced his own ethical dilemmas during the McCarthy era, provides a poignant portrayal of the struggle for conscience. The film’s conclusion, while offering a satisfying resolution, also serves as a reminder that real-life battles for justice may not always end so neatly.

Kazan’s personal connection to the film is palpable. He used “On The Waterfront” as a platform to express his own apologies for cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s. His testimony, which included naming colleagues involved with communist themes, subjected him to condemnation and controversy, even decades later.

Despite the backlash, Kazan remained steadfast in his decision to speak out. He denounced the “dangerous and alien conspiracy” of communism and believed that America could only address the issue wisely if it had access to all the facts.

Today, as society grapples with its own challenges, the film’s themes remain relevant. Modern America faces a new form of McCarthyism, where the very individuals who deny the existence of an investigation’s foundation engage in similar witch hunts. The film reminds us that the struggle for justice, even in the face of powerful opposition, is a noble endeavor.

While the film’s setting may be far removed from today’s world of corporate America and wokeness, its core message endures. Individuals everywhere are confronted with the pressure to conform to prevailing narratives, even when they know it’s wrong. We often find ourselves silently complying, sacrificing our own principles and compromising our humanity in the process.

Father Barry’s rallying cry in the film serves as a powerful reminder: every act of resistance, no matter how small, holds significance when confronting oppressive forces. As Terry Malloy himself realizes, the real betrayal lies not in testifying against corruption but in the lies, justifications, and inaction that betray one’s own conscience.

This Labor Day, as we commemorate the struggle for workers’ rights, we should also reflect on Kazan’s enduring message. We must not blindly accept a new morality imposed by powerful figures. Instead, we should ponder how to act on our consciences and engage in acts of defiance, understanding that every small act contributes to a broader movement for change.

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