Life as Narrative: On the Waterfront and Communism

In our “Life as Narrative” series, we explore how storytellers use the happenings of their personal lives as the underlying philosophies of the stories they tell. In this article, we’ll discuss Elia Kazan’s role in testifying against alleged communist filmmakers in the 1950s, and how that experience shaped his cult classic, On the Waterfront.

The director of On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, participated in the House Committee of Un-American Activities’ witch-hunt of communists in the entertainment industry, and the movie is thought to be a response to the criticism he received from his colleagues afterward. The protagonist of On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) chooses to turn in the corrupt members of the union to which he belongs, a not-so-eerie parallel to Kazan’s participation with the House Committee of Un-American Activities – almost as if he used the movie to justify his actions. The movie promotes the idea that morality transcends personal friendships and that immorality is “un-American.” The “morality” in the battle between the HCUA and alleged communist filmmakers is relative, meaning it relies on the views of the people that sustains it rather than an appeal to some higher authority (like God), meaning the underlying philosophy of the film is simple: dissent itself is un-American.

Consider the fact that communism, in its reduced form, is the complete anti-thesis of capitalism–not democracy–as the McCarthy-era propaganda depicts. If American citizens knew the truth, more people would begin to adopt socialism and the elite would eventually lose the ability to control the public with the false ideal of the “American Dream.” By depicting communists as demons and monsters who wish to enslave the public, the conflation of socialism and slavery endures even into contemporary times.

Given the fact that Hollywood is one of the most influential social catalysts in existence Kazan, in creating On the Waterfront, helped infuse the anti-socialism sentiment into the American collective consciousness in a clever, round about way. The purpose of a union is to unite a group of workers and protect them from employer abuse. The idea of a union fits perfectly with the image of capitalism’s “free market,” and capitalism is the very basis of the “American Dream.” Johnny Friendly abused the power of the union (which violates the “American Dream). Friendly’s actions, like socialism, are the anti-thesis of capitalism, making him a stand-in for the alleged communist threat.

Malloy is torn between his personal loyalty to his friends or duty to morality and a higher ideal. When he decides to testify against Friendly, he is beaten and nearly destroyed. Still, he prevails – a message to all American citizens: You may face death for doing the right thing, but at the end of the day, it’s worth the risk.

Kazan made a smart decision not to place overt political messages in On the Waterfront because it made his subterfuge that much subtle and subliminal. Instead, he released the movie as a response to the criticism, meaning it can act as a stand-alone movie while delivering his message.

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