The American crime drama film, “On the Waterfront”, was produced in 1954 by Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan based on Malcolm Johnson’s series of articles published in the New York Sun under the same title: “Crime on the Waterfront”. The film is all about the corruption and union violence among the longshoremen. In every little detail, the film provides a comprehensive story on the widespread racketeering, extortion and corruption on the waterfront of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Elia kazan has done a commendable job in the film by giving viewers a close insight into the struggles of the working class in 1950s America through the film scenes.
Poor working and living conditions: In the first instance, Elia Kazan first offers a vivid description of the pathetic physical environment within which the poor American workers were subjected to at the dock. As depicted in the movie, the environment at the dock is extremely dirty and filthy to a larger extent. The workers are confined in poorly ventilated cargo holds and ship docks where they worked for longer hours. In most cases, workers would be compelled to work day and night without taking any beak in between the shifts as the labor law required. Besides the horrendous working conditions at the dock, the film shows the dock workers living in slum dwellings located behind the docks. Just like the wanting dock conditions, the slum was characterized by littered narrow alleys, littered rooftops of the dilapidated dwelling units and overcrowding. The actual conditions of the physical environment within which the workers worked and lived at the dock, as depicted by Kazan in the film, is a clear indication that American workers were subjected to poor working conditions like never before. According to the American film analyst Professor Gary Nash, “There is no other film that has diligently featured the horrendous working and living conditions of American workers in the 1950s like Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.” Indeed, the movie leaves no stone unturned when it comes to highlighting the social and economic upheavals meted out to the workers at the dock. In this way, the viewers of the film become fully aware of the problems that beleaguered industrial workers in American for the period spanning 1950s. Although there are other books and written to address the same issue, the film has a far reaching impacts on the viewers more than readers in regard to developing feelings for the oppressed workers during the time.
Oppression: It is equally important to note that Kazan also over-achieved his intentions of illustrating how corruption and oppression added to the misery of the working class Americans at the dock. In the film, the producer manages to capture incidences of subjugation as practiced by the dock authorities against the workers at the waterfront. The producer puts the oppressive regime on the spot just to bring the struggles of the working Americans into the limelight. Johnny Friendly, the union boss, applies an iron-fist rule over workers at the waterfront. Friendly who is also the former heavy weight boxer champion, is using his physical power and authority to rule over the workers at the dock with an iron fist. He employs the other cruel goons such as Charley and Terry Malloy to assists in the oppression of the dock workers. In an attempt to maintain status quo and full control of the waterfront, Friendly is in the habit of murdering the dock workers whom he considers as a threat to his oppressive regime. Some of the dockworkers murdered by the Friendly and his allies are Joey Doyle. It is quite shocking, however, to learn that the dockworkers live in the mercies of the union boss and that their life could be taken away at the discretion of the Waterfront authorities. In this way, Kazan has demonstrated that the rights of the dockworkers were violated by the employers under the noses on Federal government. The complacency of the investigative agency: Waterfront Crime Commission to prevent murder of the innocent radical dockworkers by the union boss is another proof put forward by Kazan to support the theory that the American government and its agencies never took any interest in defending and protecting the rights of the poor dockworkers. The victims of murder just like the oppressed have place to turn to for justice. Through the scenes of the dockworkers’ murder and series of oppression in the hands of the union boss, no viewer is left in the dark about different forms of injustices perpetrated against workers by their employers in the 1950s America.
Corruption: Typical of the American society during the period preceding 1950, corruption is yet another lethal vice that rocked the Waterfront in the film like no other. Corruption and racketeering formed the lifeblood of the Waterfront. The film does reveal that rampant extortions, bribery, theft, loan sharks sponsored by the dock union and kickbacks to the union officials led by Friendly were the order of the day at the dock. At the beginning of the film, the viewers could see the union officials soliciting for bribes from the poor dockworkers in exchange for job at the dock. Furthermore, anyone perceived to be mounting any form of opposition against the Waterfront regime is permanently laid off and cannot find any employment at the dock again. This is evident in the case of Terry when he testified against Friendly in the murder of Joey Doyle; Friendly declared that Terry will never find any employment at the Waterfront and it came to pass. Therefore the Waterfront authorities use employment as a bait to attract them undue loyalty from all sections of the dockworkers. In essence, dockworkers are portrayed by Kazal as mere tools manipulated by the union boss for the purposes of selfish political and material gains.
In conclusion, Elia Kazal’s film ‘On the Waterfront’ gives viewers a close insight into the struggles of the American working class in 1950s. Kazal achieve this goal be putting to the fore incidences of political oppression, corruption and poor working and living conditions for workers in the Waterfront where the dockworkers were exploited and abused. The film does reveal that rampant extortions, bribery, theft, loan sharks sponsored by the dock union and kickbacks to the union officials led by Friendly were the order of the day at the dock. At the end of it all, not a single viewer is left in doubt about the struggles and challenges the poor working American went through in the hands of their cruel yet oppressive masters and employers in the period preceding 1950.