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The 1954 American gangster and drama film features grand corruption, violence related to trade unionism and racketeering among the longshoremen at the Waterfront. The film script was first written by Budd Schulberg and later produced by the world renowned film director Elia Kazan. The prominent stars in the film include Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Marie Saint. The powerful and authentic looking film of the 20th century captures the real life situation at the New York’s waterfront that is widely characterized by oppression and violence among the longshoremen.
The film is set on the waterfront background where dock workers are subjected to all manner of ills by their labor boss Johnny Friendly. The dock workers literally scramble for the limited job opportunities at the dock, survive under pathetic living conditions, and are often assaulted at the discretion of their labor boss. Dignity, mutual respect, integrity, and ethics are not any cherished virtues. Corruption, exploitation, violence, brutal murders, and injustice are commonplace the waterfront.
The most conspicuous objection to the controversial ending of the movie pointed out by Barthes is the mere fact that Johnny Friendly is portrayed to be beaten and subsequently lost his iron-fist control of the Waterfront yet people still dread in his presence including Mr. Upstairs whom the film portray as the mysterious power behind the mob. In his own words while watching television, Mr. Upstairs says, “If Mr. Friendly calls, I’m out, and you don’t know when I’ll be back,” is still in control. This is an attestation that Friendly is still in power against the projection of the film that he is no longer in power and his place has been taken up by the new generational leaders.
In Barthes’ essay, Anderson notices that Terry’s urge to get back on his feet and go staggering into the pier building (p. 102) is an implication that he fully supports the brutal exploitative was of the docks based on the common understanding that the essence of going back to work is to sustain the crooked system of the Friendly’s rule. The ending of the film contradicts Terry’s new spirited fight after his imminent affiliation to Father Barry and Edie to oust Friendly from the control of the Waterfront. This scene at the end of the film is apparently incoherent with the general theme of the film.
Lance Lee critic of the film equally reinforces Barthes criticism for the film. Terry’s unhappy reaction to the murder of Joey by Johnny Friendly is totally unconvincing considering that he knew pretty well of the murder plans being a close associate of Johnny friendly. Terry knew so well that Johnny Friendly in bluntly ruthless and determined to maintain his stake on the docks. As such, Lee is convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Terry knew of the imminent murder prior though in the subconscious. Therefore he simply wanted not to admit the consequences of their actions. It is on this basis that Lee is categorical that the film is implicit in dramatizing precise false vivendi Terry has been living all along. Therefore, Terry’s rebellion to Johnny Friendly.
There are a number of objections Barthes have in tracing Terry transformation from burn to hero. Schulberg observes in the film that after the mob had been discredited and Friendly hold broken, the dock workers were at liberty to choose their own but they confirmed the newly acquired powers to their new master and a strong man: Terry. “To the new strong man, bruised and bleeding though he may be“. In this light, Schulberg sees Terry as self-appointed tyrant who can be defeated by right thinking people in a vital democracy. To Schulberg, Terry has proven individualistic who is simply concerned about his own well being.
In a parallel analysis done by Anderson, Terry’s opposition to Johnny Friendly is purely personal because he is such a personality with a proven record of pursuing selfish interests to the point of compromising his own consciences. This is evident when he sacrificed his victory in a boxing bout by giving a false fall after talking bribe from his lawyer brother. Secondly, he participated in several murders under the directives of Friendly. Consequently, Anderson is deeply convicted that Terry has not really changed from this trend. He simply staged a fierce struggle against Friendly with then support of the mob so as to oust him from the control of the waterfront. According to Anderson, the motive of Terry was to replace Friendly as the new master but not struggle for everyone.
Taking his inherent self concern into consideration, Terry is just but a self-appointed tyrant who is fundamentally contemptuous and pretending to idealism without any virtues of grace, joy or love. As a result, Terry is not a hero who has transformed from burn as depicted at the end of the movie. The film critic goes on to add that even his testimony at the Waterfront Crime Commission was motivated by his undying ambitions to take over leadership because he never admitted his direct involvement in any of the crime.
Barthes’ objections to Terry being portrayed as a “new Christ figure” is based on the fact that political climate that existed at the docks of New York perpetuates immorality, corruption and violence at waterfront. Against the conclusion of the film, Terry turns out to be a violent and corrupt master just like Friendly despite his affiliations with Father Barry and Eddie. So there is no element of “new Christ figure” at the end of the film as depicted.