The most handsome man in Hollywood history as a rough-and-tumble dock worker — what else could you ask for?
Marlon Brando’s career-defining performance as Terry Malloy solidifies “On The Waterfront” (1954) as one of the greatest films ever made. On its face, it is the story of a man who rats on a corrupt union boss to secure a better livelihood for his fellow men down in the shipyard. But at its core, it is a film about following your conscience — about standing for what’s right in spite of all the social pressures arrayed against you — and accepting the consequences. As Terry says, “Conscience… That stuff can drive you nuts!” (RELATED: The Scariest Movie Of All Time Could Never Be Made Today)
The weight of the film builds unambiguously toward the moral duty to inform. The film opens as Terry is unwittingly made an accessory to a mob hit on a “good kid” from the neighborhood. He feels the sin weigh on him, but his older brother Charlie and corrupt union leader/mob boss Johnny Friendly tell him that’s just the way the world works — enjoy the kickbacks. Terry falls in with the victim’s sister Edie and a street-smart priest Father Barry, who both guide him toward making the near-impossible decision to risk his job, his reputation, even his life to follow his conscience. Director Elia Kazan provides a happy ending to a true story that did not end so rosy.
The film was deeply personal for Kazan, his ultimate apologia for informing on his colleagues at the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the late 1940s, the film industry came under sharp scrutiny for its communist leanings, with prominent figures being blacklisted if they refused to talk — and also sometimes if they did. Kazan testified in the hearings at the height of McCarthyism, naming names of fellow writers and producers who pressured him to insert communist themes into his work. He faced strong condemnation because of it; even decades later, many refused to applaud when he received his Oscars Lifetime Achievement Award.
Despite the pressure, Kazan stood strong in his decision until the end. After testifying, he purchased a full-page spread in the New York Times. As a former member of the communist party, he denounced the “dangerous and alien conspiracy” in the hopes that America could maintain a “free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.” He continued, “I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about communism. All the facts.” (RELATED: The Utter Absurdity Of Hollywood’s Latest LGBT Propaganda Film)
Today, America faces a new McCarthyism — from the very people who deny the reality of the investigation’s foundation. The truth is that communist sympathy, just like today, was indeed rampant in the Golden Era of Hollywood. Those “well-meaning left-leaning writers and producers” — who popular history tells us were unfairly targeted then — are the same ones leading the witch hunts today. The powerful figures who root out subversion are now pushing the same dangerous and alien conspiracy from within.
Now, we no longer live in the time of mob bosses, and the most powerful unions today are filled with blue-haired cat ladies. Nevertheless, the core truth of the film remains: what a man does to stand against injustice matters.
What we face today is worse than what Terry Malloy stood against on the Hoboken docks. Today’s tyrants may not have us whacked, but they will slowly destroy our souls. Most of us see it where we spend the bulk of our days. Schools, stores, hospitals, factories, restaurants, government offices — wherever we work, nowhere is safe from the capture of wokeness. There’s no more need for a local mob boss; the entirety of corporate America works as one great cartel to make you accept their definition of right and wrong.
With each mandated mumbling against our own privilege, or gender, or religion, or skin color, we degrade ourselves into the racket. We know it’s wrong, we don’t deserve it. We know we’re not oppressors; we don’t harbor hate. But we lie to ourselves to get by. We mouth the words because it’s easy; it may even be necessary for our livelihoods or those who depend on us. But the path to societal ruin occurs one individual at a time. With each new debasement we erode our own humanity and the ties that bind us together.
Midway through the film, Father Barry rallies the men as they stand silent, “deaf and dumb” to the depravity that surrounds them. “And 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,” he says, in a monologue that would have stolen the show alongside any other lead but Brando.
In other words, every choice matters when we face a force seeking to crush us. We don’t do it with the confidence that we will emerge victorious; we may in fact get crushed. Nevertheless, we do it knowing it’s right. If the road to civilizational ruin comes from individual apathy, then the path to revolution comes from every small act of resistance.
“I was ratting on myself all those years and I didn’t even know it,” Terry realizes. His testimony against Johnny was not the betrayal. The lies, the justifications, the inaction — all betrayals to his own conscience.
This Labor Day, conservatives should contemplate Kazan’s powerful message. Don’t accept the new morality of a dangerous and alien conspiracy just because it is the path of least resistance, just because powerful people tell us it is so. We will not — cannot —all risk everything on the metaphorical docks. But we can think deeper about how to act on our consciences. Every small act of defiance builds to a wave.