• Onalee McGraw

On the Waterfront: Conscience, Solidarity and Overcoming Tribal Indifference

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

“We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty”

- G. K Chesterton


Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, 1954. Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

Rebuilding the Bonds of Community and Civic Friendship

Social scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone has documented our cultural and moral loss of human connection and community bonds. Cell phones and social media have often replaced personal connection and face- to- face conversation. Postmodern philosophers tell our rising generation they are atomized radical individuals who must define themselves by their feelings in the moment. Standing against this false view of human nature is our great cultural and moral legacy of classic films. These films were created in an era when individuals understood themselves to be part of the human family with the capacity to know and choose right from wrong.


In the classical worldview we are moral actors, not victims of fate. We are - every one of us - participants in a transcendent moral order. Timeless questions like: “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “How can we all live together in freedom and harmony?” are confronted in the great films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It is films like On the Waterfront that elevate us whether we are left, right or center in our way of looking at the world.


Are we social beings or autonomous selves?

One of the greatest tragedies of our postmodern world is the epidemic loneliness and lack of connection experienced across the generations. Consider the classic dictionary definition of solidarity: “unity and agreement of feeling and action among people with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

Let us examine how On the Waterfront supports our understanding of ourselves as social beings who have a natural desire for unity and solidarity over isolation and fragmentation.


Three elements of the common good

On the Waterfront portrays how conscience, moral intuition and care for the common good in civil society can operate together in the human psyche. Three elements associated with the common good of community and civil society are seen in the film’s events. The first element is the development of the individual conscience that causes the indifferent, confused or fearful person to become an acting person for the common good. Terry Malloy, (Marlon Brando) struggles to become an acting person. He must decide to tell the truth to the girl he loves (Eva Marie Saint) that he did play a role, however innocent, in her brother’s murder, and he must decide whether or not he will serve the common good by testifying before the Crime Commission.


The second element necessary for defending the common good is the gathering of enough individuals in the civil community who will act in solidarity. Terry demands his rights as a longshoreman to work on the docks, but it is the other longshoremen who will tip the balance. This second element is apparent when the men on the docks see themselves as allies in solidarity with Terry.

The third element is the resolve and determination of enough individuals who live in the community to work together to maintain civil peace and stability over time. We see this third element visually as director Kazan has the men enter the ship to go to work in the final scene. In real life, as in the true story upon which the film was based, it can happen that there are not enough engaged citizens to sustain and maintain the initial spurt of moral energy necessary for the sustaining of the common good in the long run.


The Three Elements of the Common Good – The Ideas are in the Images


The First Element – the formation of conscience and the development of civic virtue

Terry changes from what he himself would call a “mug” into a more virtuous person who is capable of making moral judgments that fit with reality. Father Barry,(Karl Malden) tells Terry that before he can do anything else, he has to tell Edie the truth that he was involved in the death of her brother Joey. Father Barry says, “I'm not asking you to do anything. It's your own conscience that's got to do the asking.” Terry responds, “Conscience, that stuff can drive you nuts,” but Terry accepts the challenge and thanks Father Barry.


The Second Element – solidarity in community

The existence of a enough individuals committed to acting in solidarity with one another to change their community for the good. Enough people must be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of all.





In these contrasting scenes, director Kazan shows the silent men passively observing the violence against Father Barry. These same men – inspired by Terry’s courage – become engaged citizens, standing up with him to mob boss, Johnny Friendly(Lee J. Cobb).




The Third Element – the determination of citizens over time to work together for peace and stability in their community

This third element requires the practice of civic virtue as a habit of the heart and not just a temporary emotional response to a crisis. Terry comes to see that the community and the longshoremen’s union cannot survive in peace and stability until Johnny Friendly is completely defeated. The triumph of the common good is seen when the longshoremen resolutely enter the ship to go to work.


Elia Kazan on the nature of film as a visual art form

Elia Kazan, in his autobiography, talks about the unique power of the motion picture camera to capture the moral emotions of human beings. According to Kazan:


"The camera is not only a recording device but a penetrating instrument. It looks into a face, not at a face. Can this kind of effect be achieved on stage? Not nearly! A camera can even be a microscope. Linger, enlarge, analyze, study. It is a very subtle instrument, can make any face heavier, leaner, drawn, flushed, pale, jolly, depraved, saintly. I was so late finding all this out.”


Kazan continues: ”We see in close-up that a person is undecided; the “tight shot” shows the indecision on the person’s face, we can read it as clearly as if it were spelled out in words – but with all the values of ambivalence. Then we see the decision being made and the new course taken. Except for that close-up, the change of intent or direction would be inexplicable. Because of it, the progression of the story, the “inner line” is kept clear. “




With great classic movies like On the Waterfront we can catch up with each other across the generations to rediscover the meaning of solidarity and its essential role in sustaining civility and order in a free society.


Click here for more resources and studies on classic films


On the Waterfront Study Guide


Educational Guidance Institute Website

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