Calvary on the Docks: Catholic Themes in On the Waterfront
“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? … It’s making the love of a buck, the cushy job, more important than the love of man. It’s forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, Christ is always with you … And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me.”
-Father Barry, On the Waterfront
Though it may at first glance seem like nothing more than a sophisticated gangster movie, Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront has profoundly Catholic themes simmering just below the story’s surface. In fact, it can be argued that the film is a meditation on the Communion of Saints masquerading as a tale about a labor union commandeered by truly grave sinners. Don’t expect to hear the phrase “communion of saints” uttered by any of the characters, because you won’t find it within the script. However, this concept is both implicit and incessant; it is embroidered over the entire fabric of the film.
The basic plot follows Terry Malloy on his journey from small-time thug to star witness before the waterfront crime commission. In the opening scenes, John Friendly—the corrupt boss of the local longshoremen’s union—and his gang of crooks murder Joey Doyle, a union member who was set to testify against them. Terry plays a small, but integral, part in the killing. Of course, there is no evidence linking any of the perpetrators to the crime. The victim’s sister, Edie, is determined to bring the killers to justice. The local priest, Father Barry, also gets involved, encouraging members to stand up against union corruption.
Most of the characters in On the Waterfront are members of the union, which should, in theory, provide various benefits in exchange for their contributions. The same characters, knowingly or not, are also part of a less-tangible, more abstract, but equally real, and far more important organization, so to speak—the Communion of Saints. Two characters in the film are attuned to this reality and behave accordingly; both are practicing Catholics—Father Barry and Edie. These two characters act as champions of virtue, persuading others to become better citizens.
Within the microcosm of the film, good citizenship within the Communion of Saints can be attained by devoting proper attention to the Four Cs: Charity, Conscience, Confession, and Conversion. The film’s hero, Terry Malloy, journeys through all four.
After Terry advises Edie to abandon the search for Joey’s killers, he justifies his position, saying, “I’m only trying to help you out. I’m trying to keep you from getting hurt, what more do you want me to do?” Edie responds: “Much more. Much, much, much more.” Indeed, in the moral code of the film, the Golden Rule is of foremost importance, and people are honor-bound to assist others. After all, as Edie says: “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else? I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”
Father Barry states the film’s philosophy well:
Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up … Every time the mob puts the crusher 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 has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord …
Putting the duty to actively care for others more succinctly, Edie asks, “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?”
Conversely, the failure to act charitably toward others is painted as a grave offense with harsh consequences. “That’s what makes people mean and difficult,” Edie opines. “People don’t care enough about them.” We find Terry, in contrast to Edie, living in a decidedly uncharitable manner at the film’s outset; when Edie asks him whether he is on the side of the gangsters or those whom they oppress, he replies: “Me? I’m with me.” He even tries to convert Edie to his self-centered mentality: “Quit worrying about the truth all the time and start worrying about yourself.” Her response to this suggestion, which runs completely counter to both the morality of the film and Catholic doctrine, is to connect Terry’s low social status with his egocentric ethos: “No wonder everybody calls you a bum.”
Terry got to be a bum, not only through his lack of charity toward others, but also due to others’ lack of charity toward him. In Terry’s famous monologue, he confronts his brother Charley for failing to stand up to his mob associates, and instead encouraging Terry to take the dive that prematurely ended his boxing career. “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” With abject regret, he continues, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Terry has no particular accomplishments or assets. The only person who respects him is a neighborhood kid; everybody else considers him a bum, just as Edie said. The reason? “It was you, Charley,” Terry bluntly concludes. Had Charley acted charitably toward Terry, things might have turned out differently.
As we grow in charity, our consciences become better-attuned. This is certainly true of Terry Malloy. As he begins to learn about the importance of charity–principally from his associations with Edie and Father Barry–he begins to feel pangs of conscience for his role in Joey Doyle’s murder.
The film emphasizes the importance of a well-formed conscience directly and repeatedly. When Terry goes to Father Barry for advice, Father Barry at first speaks passionately about Terry’s “brothers,” who are being exploited by the very men Terry’s silence protects—again, alluding to the Communion of Saints. Then he cuts himself off, saying, “Nevermind. I’m not asking you to do anything, it’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.” A mere fifteen minutes later Edie says something similar: “I don’t want you to do anything. You let your conscience tell you what to do.”
A properly formed conscience is, in fact, so important that it has its own totem: Joey Doyle’s jacket. Pop Doyle passes it from Joey, who was set to be the first conscientious actor against the mob, to Kayo Dugan. Over the course of the time Dugan has the jacket, his conscience is shaped, and he makes a turnabout; he shifts from believing Joey should have “learn[ed] to keep his mouth shut,” to being the next man in line to testify. After Dugan is murdered for breaking his silence, the jacket is handed over to Terry. He, in turn, experiences a similar conscientious transformation, leading to his own testimony before the commission, and, ultimately, his final showdown with John Friendly.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that every sin, no matter how private or personal, harms the entirety of the Communion of Saints (953). The normal method for seeking absolution is via Confession. Likewise, in On the Waterfront, confession of covert criminal activity is essential to restoring the health of the community, the entirety of which is damaged by said crimes. One might say the entire story hangs on the importance of this principle: only Terry’s confession of two key crimes/sins—namely, Joey Doyle’s murder, and John Friendly’s racketeering operations—can restore proper order based on charity, and rectify the harm done to the community.
After receiving Joey’s jacket, Terry takes the first steps toward confession. Most appropriately, Terry first seeks his priest after deciding to come clean. But, just as in the Confiteor we confess our sins before all the saints, Terry cannot confess to Father Barry alone. Indeed, the latter advises Terry to immediately confess his part in Joey Doyle’s murder to Edie, which Terry does. Interestingly, this second confession is almost entirely drowned out by the sound of a steamship whistle, making it, like the confessions of our fellow parishioners, confidential. The parallels between Terry’s confession to Edie and those of a sacramental nature are amplified by the two select phrases we are allowed to hear: “Honest to God,” and “I swear to God.”
Terry’s final confession, of course, must be before the general public—the entire Communion of Saints—in the form of his testimony before the crime commission.
All of the above steps lead naturally toward conversion. In this overtly secular film, however, conversion is not explicitly religious in nature, but, rather, is manifested by a transformation from egocentrism and apathy to dynamic charity and virtuous action.
We first witness the beginnings of Terry’s conversion process during Father Barry’s impromptu eulogy of Kayo Dugan. When one of John Friendly’s trigger men throws garbage at Father Barry, Terry scolds him, saying, “Hey, don’t do that,” and “Let him finish.” When the same hood tries to throw something else, Terry socks him in the face. He does all of this in the sight of John Friendly and his union thugs—all of whom have been, up to this point, Terry’s associates.
The next major step in Terry’s conversion process comes when he decides not to pursue violent revenge against John Friendly for murdering his brother Charley. Instead, he chooses to take the high road and seek justice by testifying before the crime commission. His actual testimony is yet another big step—he names Joey Doyle’s killers in front of the murderers themselves, as well as a packed courtroom and rolling cameras. These two steps demonstrate his transformation from a self-centered, opportunist bum to a responsible citizen within the Communion of Saints.
But the ultimate evidence of this change occurs during the final showdown with John Friendly at the film’s finale. Friendly has a whole crew of hired muscle to help him win his fistfight with Terry, and Terry is inevitably beaten nearly unconscious. The other longshoremen, however, are moved by Terry’s courage and integrity, and decide to take a stand of their own—they refuse to go back to work unless Terry, who has been blackballed by Friendly, goes with them. Bruised, bloodied, and dizzy with pain, Terry drags himself down the dock and onto the job, affirming the men’s ultimatum, and effectively destroying Friendly’s grip on the union in one swift stroke.
Terry hereby performs the preeminent act of charity—he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. In the closing scene, he and his fellow longshoremen march through the warehouse door, just as though they were marching through the gates of heaven. The final image is that of the door closing, with John Friendly vociferously on the outside.
As stated before, this is an overtly secular film; however, there are clearly strong Catholic themes woven throughout. Furthermore, it indubitably promotes virtue, in stark contrast to the vast volume of vice spewing from most modern blockbusters. Although some of the content makes the film too gritty for children, I believe most adult Catholics will find it to be edifying, perhaps even inspiring. In these outrageously self-centered times, any creative work that reminds us of our connectedness with, and obligations to, the rest of humanity can be like a cool, clean drink of water on a parched tongue. If you find yourself feeling thirsty, give On the Waterfront a try.