The central argument of the movie reflects the statement “you lost the battle, but you have a chance to win the war” (On the Waterfront). Elia Kazan’s 1954 crime drama film On the Waterfront is a visual cinematic solution to the contemporary rhetorical problem of confrontation between the two forms of oppression of communism ideology and gangster racketeering society, which is shown with the intertextual elements of inhuman exploitation, degradation and aimless materialism. Although On the Waterfront can be seen “as a specific response to the era of McCarthyism”, the message of the film is framed with visual setting of the fog and depicts a rising action of “atmosphere of moral uncertainty”. Considering the fact that the aesthetic theme of the movie resonated with the social situation of the contemporary world, the film attempted to address the politically underlying message. In this respect, the visual elements of caged pigeons are the metaphorical symbols of selflessness, selflessness, and intersection of the corrupted community and entrapped individual. Therefore, the film’s morality of calling things by their proper names justifies that liberal democracy can temporary remedy contemporary communism-dominated social injustice.
Elia Kazan’s film was an allegorical attempt to wave together two social threads of the contemporary world and reflect them through the analogues of community’s control and individuals’ inaction. The later phenomenon is represented by the consistent theme of ambivalence when the individual has to resolve the conflict between right and wrong and adequately “respond to the class of absolute moral standards” (Hey 190).
In this instance, On the Waterfront’s exposition inhibits ideological contradictions when “an outlaw hero” overpowers “an official hero” with his values of “self-determination and freedom from entanglement”. Furthermore, the outlaw hero, whose physical body becomes a central element of the dialogues and visual confrontation, can be defined as a “reluctant hero” because his “emotional response is motivated by vengeance” and his dynamics can be manipulated.
In this regard, the director uses a slow zoom to the character’s face and eyes in order to reflect his viewpoint and demonstrate that the dynamic symbols of sacrifices of the reluctant hero signalize that the story is not over. For this purpose, the visual elements of boxing are used as the symbolic objects of “rise and fall of the class struggle”, where individual’s final superiority in the fight justifies the establishment of righteousness of liberal democracy.
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In this respect, the individual bears expression of collective action of the community and transforms into “the resurrected hero” after completing his moral duty of fighting for right and inhibiting his personal redemption. Thus, the movie’s aesthetic theme of “crucifixion” of the hero, which is demonstrated by his battered body and his subsequent “resurrection” when he rises to his feet, foreshadows a contemporary industrial democracy battle against communism control.
On the other hand, On the Waterfront attempts to portray the decline of traditions of the working class but depicts its “expressions of collective guilt and shame in the wake of its inaction”. Furthermore, the notion of liberal democratic individualism does not presuppose a suppression of dominant communist control, but rather an affirmation of the direction for change. In this respect, the outcome of the movie’s enveloping action portrayed with “the warehouse door closing behind the victorious worker” while the head leader is still sitting in his position symbolizes that the individual’s success is fragile, and his victory is temporary without “an uplifting reward for his sacrifice of blood”.
In summary, On the Waterfront reaches its goal of making accusations against Communism disloyalty and succeeds in evoking a moral outrage in the intended audience, who does not acknowledge the historical background of the motion picture. Considering the coincidence of movie’s concept and contemporary populist ideology, the film can be used as a tool for investigation of alleged Communist filtration. Additionally, the film succeeds in representing the collapse of traditional imagination of American Heroes, who choose to follow the legal or either illegal path.