"I?ll Be Back!" The Battle continues?On the Waterfront:
Art Reflects Culture
By Theresa Shetler
"Try to explain on rational grounds the mass insanity that seized Germany in Hitler?s day. Explain the logic behind the Cold War arms race, in which both sides accepted the
policy of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). What keeps a wealthy nation like
the United States from housing its homeless population? What keeps the world
from feeding the 30,000 people who die malnourished each day? The experts
have no answer but "forces beyond our control." (Phillip Yancy, Beyond
Flesh and Blood)
The 1954 Marlon Brando?s movie "On the Waterfront" was one attempt to
look at "forces beyond our control" and to give an answer of hope. The plot of "On
the Waterfront" develops the theme of human greed and lust for power. The scene
in which Johnny Friendly is busy counting money that has been extorted from the dock
workers dramatically shows this theme. The camera pans around the room showing all
the players in this ugly, perverse game, and then moves in for a close-up of Terry, a
dock worker, who works for the mob.. Terry has just come in from the murder that he helped commit and the close up of his face shows the conflict of someone who realizes he is part of this evil, ugly game. The game is taking him farther than he ever wanted to go and the price to play is way too high. The method acting techniques that Marlon Brando uses to get in touch with the emotional turmoil that the character Terry felt and showed,
were ground breaking and changed acting forever.
The death of Terry?s friend is symbolic of the death of Terry?s lifestyle and is the catalyst for his metamorphosis from being part of the evil money machine of the underworld, to doing battle with the monster he was once a part of. Just as the man is brutally pushed off of the top of the building, plunging to his death far below, Terry is pushed from the deadness of his apathy into a new life, fighting against the power hungry monster that the mob embodies..
Another scene which portrays Terry?s journey from death to new life is in the back seat of his brother?s car. Terry confronts his brother about being part of something so evil that his own brother would use and abuse him and threaten his life. Terry say?s ?I could a been somebody, I could a been a contender, I?m not a bum!" His dream was to be
a prize fighter, but he threw the fight at Madison Square Garden because his brother told
him too. He stops being a contender. Terry starts to realize that he is not a bum and in
an ironic sort of way he becomes a prize fighter of a different kind. He is called to fight for
a more noble cause, the cause of justice for his people, the dock workers who are
oppressed by extortion, lust for power and the evil darkness of the underworld.
Director, Elia Kazan was trying to make a statement about social injustice and evil in
America in the 1950?s. He wanted to stir the complacency and apathy of the American
people. It seemed that everyone wanted to forget the horror?s of WWII and create a
fantasy world where everyone was happy and at peace The 50?s culture tried to paint a
picture of the perfect life, a little white house with a picket fence, June Cleaver roasting a
chicken in the oven wearing pearls and pumps.. But beneath the surface of the good life, evil and darkness was growing like a monster looking for it?s next prey, spreading it?s tentacles into every facet of life.
As the movie draws to an end, the battle against evil has been fought, and Terry has
found redemption for his soul, one last line echoing from the screen. Johnny Friendly yells
to Terry and the dock workers, "I?ll be back" issuing the battle cry of evil. Kazan knows
that evil will be back, there will always need to be an on going battle against it. Kazan?s
challenge to each of us is, do we remain apathetic and complacent, allowing ourselves to
be sucked into and absorbed by the monster of evil, greed and lust for power? Or, do we
become the prize fighter like Terry, courageous enough to embrace change, get in the ring
and fight. The truth of the movie "On the Waterfront" is still relevant 47 years later as it
illustrates that we only find redemption for our souls and our society when we stop being
part of the monster of evil and start to do battle with it.