It's the pointy end of the VCE year now. Just marked a pile of On The Waterfront essays, as I've written in the previous post, and discovered that many of my students wrote expository essays, appropriate for Creating and Presenting, instead of analytical text response essays. I've been spending a bit of class time, trying to remedy the problem, as one does. We worked on the topic from last year's final exam paper: How important is family loyalty in the film?
Have to concede that initially I found this a little obscure, as did my students, some of whom were freaking out. After showing them a way to deconstruct the essay topic, I decided to have a go myself. In doing so, I found that the topic wasn't obscure at all.
Here's my essay:
Near the exposition of On The Waterfront, Edie Doyle, kneeling at the side of her dead brother, cries “I want to know who killed my brother!” Her family loyalty, her relentless quest for the truth about corruption on the waterfront, initiates Terry’s moral dilemma and his eventual transformation to ‘contender’. Furthermore, Terry’s relationship with his brother, Charley, is central. On The Waterfront is also very concerned with unionism; longshoremen paying a corrupt union that they unfortunately rely on for their survival. The union could be considered a family, of sorts, albeit one subjugated by a tyrannical leader who dispenses ‘largesse’ according to his own ends. The longshoremen must remain loyal to this union to ensure their survival, or so they think.
On the Hoboken wharf, the union could be considered a family upon which the longshoremen depend for survival. Betraying this collective, as Joey Doyle (and Andy before him – ‘that’s like when they called out my Andy’) discovered, is punishable by death. The ironically named Friendly, lurking in his low-shot union quarters, with his well-dressed adherents, rules this family. The longshoremen seem entangled in his system, their tenements seemingly trapped behind a matrix of fire-escape stairs. They are dependent on his dispensing work to them each day, desperately scrabbling for work tokens on the dock. They pay their extortionate dues; accept loans from J.P. Morgan, Friendly’s loan shark. They know they are powerless against Friendly’s corrupt rule. Their loyalty to this union is unwilling, born out of fear and survival needs. This is seen in Pop Doyle’s return to work immediately after his son’s death – ‘I gotta work to pay for the funeral’. With no work token he is forced to borrow from Morgan. Pop Doyle detests the union but pays his dues nonetheless. After thirty years on the wharf he sees no other way.
Perhaps though, it is the loyalty between members of these Hoboken families that is so compelling in this film. Edie Doyle, often filmed in pure, clear light, is almost an avenging angel, defying the constraints of her gender in her pursuit of the truth about her brother’s murder. She galvanises Father Barry to take up the cause – “What kind of a saint hides in a church?” – prompting him to see the longshore as his parish and fight for justice. Further, her burgeoning friendship with Terry which stems from this loyalty to her brother, triggers Terry’s moral development. This is revealed in the cafe as Terry wrestles to understand Edie’s sorrow. “Whatsa matter with you?” he asks, struggling to fathom why she can’t leave the subject alone. Her words, “You would [help] if you could” and her touch, deeply trouble Terry, forcing him to grapple with his conscience. [Brando’s acting is sublime at this point., I think!!] Edie’s loyalty to her brother and her subsequent relationship with Terry is thus a catalyst in his moral transformation.
Moreover, Edie challenges Father Barry to involve himself in the waterfront fight; to care for his people. In this way he connects with Terry, initially when Terry is ‘stool pigeon’ for the union at the meeting at the church. Later, after K.O.’s death, when Father Barry delivers an impassioned sermon from the hold, his words prompt Terry to take a stand, punching Tullio for his interjections and drawing the ire of Friendly, watching from above. Father Barry becomes a paternal guide for Terry, hearing his confession – “I swear I thought they was just going to talk to him” – urging him to confess to Edie and later testify to the Crime Commission. Perhaps, like a father, Father Barry is able to rebuke Terry, knock him to the ground, when Terry tells him to go to hell. Furthermore, he is able to quell Terry’s anger – “I’m gonna take it out on their skulls” – leading him to fight Friendly in court, rather than “like a hoodlum on the docks”. (Ironic, as it turns out.) After Charley’s death, Terry’s respect for Father Barry greatly assists in Terry’s redemption.
Ultimately, though, Terry’s relationship with his brother, Charley, is central to the film. Charley is supposedly Friendly’s ‘brain’, trusted with the financial dealings of the union. He is one of Friendly’s acolytes and has pledged allegiance to the union boss. Initially, he seems to have an easy relationship with Friendly. He was instrumental in ensuring Terry ‘took a dive’ to win a bet for Friendly, “for the short end money” for Terry sadly, when he “coulda been a contender.” Thus he has facilitated Terry’s lesser existence, on the rooftop, hanging out with children in their Golden Warriors jackets. So often Terry is filmed behind chicken wire, highlighting his sense of restriction and entrapment. He is caged like the homing pigeons. He envies them their freedom to feed and fly around, albeit at the mercy of the hawks, hanging around on rooftops ready to pounce. Terry is at first portrayed as an errand boy, a follower, a dupe. This is revealed in the mise-en-scene as he follows Friendly and his men out of their lair on the docks prior to calling Joey out and inadvertently luring him to his death. Yet at this stage Charley has shown some loyalty to Terry, ensuring he gets easy work on the docks as long as he remains ‘D and D’.
One of the most memorable scenes in On The Waterfront is that shot in the back of a car involving Charley and Terry. In this scene, where Charley has been asked to hand Terry over to Jerry G if he threatens to ‘go canary’, we begin to see Charley’s real love for his brother. Charley is charged with taking Terry for a ride to buy his silence. We see Charley’s turmoil as he pulls a gun on his brother. This is emphasised by the disturbing lighting heightening the sense of confused loyalties that Charley faces. As Charley reconciles himself to the ‘bum’ deal he has bequeathed his brother, the soaring legato score underlines his love and emotional pain as Terry reminds him “It was you...you should have taken care of me a little more.” Charley knows he cannot give up his brother to the mob. Charley’s allegiance to Terry and his own consequent sacrifice is pivotal in Terry’s later stance. Indeed it could be said that until he lifts his brother from the hook, almost in an embrace, he does not fully comprehend the magnitude of Edie’s loss.
These family loyalties are central to, and drive the narrative of, this film. Kazan seems to suggest that such relationships override mob rule; that grappling with one’s conscience and seeking moral truth is imperative. Perhaps this aligns with the choices Kazan made: his vindication of ratting out his friends to the HUAC.
Interestingly, I handwrote this essay in between parent interviews. (It was my first parent-teacher night as a part-time teacher, and oh, what a difference. I only saw fourteen families, as opposed to about sixty. How did I do it before? How did my full-time English, Maths and Science colleagues do it last night? Teachers deserve more pay. But I digress.)
Hope the essay was of some use to you. I'm getting my students to identify the three main points in the introduction, then link these to the topic sentences and links - as per TEEL formula - in the body paragraphs. They'll have a hard time doing this in the penultimate paragraph because it's more or less an extension of the previous one.
Think I'm blathering now.