Each film we have watched in this course presents a hero. In the cases of the first four films of this course, the hero has without a doubt been the protagonist. Terry Malloy, the protagonist of On the Waterfront (1954) is certainly a hero, but not necessarily the hero. Without the heroic acts of Edie Doyle and Father Barry that opened Terry’s eyes up to the wrongness and the corruption of Johnny Friendly, Terry could not have been a hero himself.
It is pretty evident from the start of the movie, that the star, Marlon Brando, who plays an ex-prize fighter, will eventually come to his wits and overtake Johnny Friendly and his goons. What is not so evident are the two characters who aid him in doing so, and this makes their heroism all the more impressive. The first is Father Barry, a priest, who has no business taking down a mob. He is the one that attempts to mobilize the “Dumb and Deaf” workers, at first privately, and then in front of Johnny Friendly himself. If it wasn’t plain enough, Father Barry is not a run of the mill priest: he smokes, drinks, and has a pretty mean hook. Similar to the priest, Edie, for all intensive purposes, should not be poking around and trying to find answers involving a mob murder. A young woman, who studies at a women’s school in the country, has more courage than all of the workers put together. Even so, she stays and tries to find out more about her brother’s death.
Terry is a product of his upbringing – all he knows is what he has seen from his brother, who learns from Johnny Friendly. That being said, it is very hard to believe that Terry is naïve enough to believe that murder is not something Johnny Friendly is capable of…perhaps he fought in one too many fights and his head just isn’t quite right. Terry only realizes what he is a part of when Edie, who is “the only good thing that ever happened to [him],” came into his life. A turning point for Terry is the moment when he has interactions with the two unlikely heroes. He begs Father Barry for advice, then follows it and confesses his role in the murder of Edie’s brother to Edie. In easily one of the best scenes in the film, Edie and Terry are in the train yard while Terry is confessing. The train horns are going off, and the viewer can’t hear anything being said, but knows exactly what is being revealed by the extreme close ups of the sheer terror on Edie’s face. Terry can see that what he has done and what he is a part of is awful, and because of it, he is going to lose the woman he loves. Father Barry and Edie inadvertently work together to help Terry come to this realization.
Sure, Terry Malloy testifies and takes down Johnny Friendly and his crew, but without the edgy priest and the courageous young woman, the prizefighter would still be on the side of the villains.
Kazan, Elia, dir. On the Waterfront. 1954. Film. 23 Feb 2014.