Terry says to Charley: “ I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum. Which is what I am.” Does the film support Terry’s judgment of himself?
Elia Kazan’s film, “On the Waterfront”, tells the story of a washed up ex-boxer named Terry Malloy and his fight against the organised crime syndicate controlling the shipping docks of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1954, but more importantly, according to Kazan himself: “This motion picture is about one thing only: a young man who has let his dignity slip away, and regains it.” Under Kazan’s direction, a variety of filming techniques and repeated symbols and motifs are carefully utilised to constantly support Terry’s self-perception throughout the film. However, it is this judgement of himself which evolves as a result of his profound development in both his character and his conviction to act upon his underlying moral values during the course of the film; from a lazy, insignificant “bum”, to a “somebody” who is respected for the sacrifices which he makes on behalf of his community. This transformation is not entirely self-induced, but rather brought on by a number of factors including his unwitting participation in Joey Doyle’s murder, his growing relationship and often intimate interactions with Edie, and Father Barry’s pressing care and Catholic influence.
In the beginning of the film, Kazan reveals Terry as lazy, selfish and insignificant, and due to the way he is treated by others in the community, Terry also believes himself to be nothing more than a “bum”. Since he is no longer his own man, but rather a mere pawn for Friendly to take advantage of, Terry is even held in a lower regard than the homeless man outside the church who refuses his charity and calls him a bum. Through this event, Kazan supports Terry’s negative self-perception by suggesting that despite the guarantee of security and money that comes with being loyal to Friendly’s mob, even the life of an impoverished beggar is preferable to the life that Terry is living, as the beggar is at least outside the influence of the mob, and free of the mental conflict and distress which results from being involved in such an unjust system. Although Terry exhibits signs of being a respectable young man at times, which are revealed through his growing guilt for his involvement in Joey’s murder and the way he looks after and cares for his pigeons, not many people see this in Terry, as these redeeming qualities are overshadowed by the foreboding reputation of the corrupt union. On top of being alienated within the town, Terry is even at the bottom of the hierarchy in Friendly’s mob, and he feels as though he is worthless and disposable amongst the gang members, who insult his intelligence: “What mind? The only education he ever got was the Ref counting to ten.” Terry’s body language and speech are also key indicators of his development throughout the film, because initially, his demeanour is reserved and unsure; his shoulders are slouched, he nervously fiddles with his hands in his pockets, and his speech mumbled as he struggles to articulate his feelings properly. But eventually, Terry is able to stand tall, proud, and is confident and authoritative in speech: “I ain’t a bum Edie. I’m gonna go down there and get my rights.” Such a high degree of self-confidence and understanding of his duty was lacking in the opening scenes of the film, and as a result, both Terry and the audience develop a far more positive opinion of him as a person as the film progresses.
Although Terry is initially shown in a negative light, Kazan purposely allows Edie to see through Terry’s tough-guy façade, glimpsing signs of a greater man who is far more than just an insignificant ‘bum’, so that not only Terry, but the audience as well, are encouraged to share in this view. In order to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of the docks, Terry lives according to the philosophy of “do it to him before he does it to you”, without ever...
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