Tips for Thought

On the Waterfront (1954): A Glimpse of Reality and a Trove of Timeless Lessons

In the vast world of American cinema, there’s a gem that stands the test of time—the 1954 classic, “On the Waterfront.” Directed by Elia Kazan and starring the iconic Marlon Brando, this film isn’t just about entertainment. It’s a treasure trove of life lessons. 


Before we explore its deeper lessons, let’s get the lay of the land. “On the Waterfront” paints a gritty picture of New York’s dockyards, where corruption, extortion, and violence are everyday companions. Our hero, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), is a young dockworker tangled up in the corrupt union politics led by Johnny Friendly. Terry’s journey, from a hesitant observer to a fearless whistleblower, is the heart of the story. It’s a tale brimming with tension, love, and redemption.

What are the lessons we can learn from this movie?

This film is a goldmine of wisdom, as relevant today as it was in the ’50s. Let’s dissect the various lessons this cinematic masterpiece offers.

1. The Courage to Stand Against Injustice

Witnessing Terry Malloy’s transformation, from a timid onlooker to a vocal opponent of the corrupt union, is a lesson in personal courage. This metamorphosis wasn’t a walk in the park, given the risks of confronting a powerful and violent establishment. But Malloy’s journey shows that one person’s resolve can make a world of difference. When faced with corruption and brutality, taking a stand, even at great personal peril, speaks volumes about human strength and moral fiber.

2. The Quest for Redemption

Redemption threads through the film’s fabric. Terry seeks redemption, not only for his involvement with the corrupt union but also for his role in Joey Doyle’s murder, a man who tried to expose the union’s wrongdoing. Terry’s odyssey illustrates that it’s never too late to seek redemption, to mend one’s ways, and to embrace righteousness. His struggles and eventual transformation prove that people can change, highlighting the incredible power of personal redemption.

3. The Importance of Community Solidarity

Another vital lesson emerges from the movie—the significance of community solidarity. Initially, the dock workers are reluctant to challenge Johnny Friendly and his corrupt regime, fearing retaliation. Yet, as the story unfolds, we witness a gradual shift in the community’s stance. This shift underscores the idea that a united community can confront oppressive forces and seek justice. It reminds us that strength lies in unity, and collective action can pave the way for significant change.

4. The Role of Conscience in Guiding Actions

Throughout the film, conscience emerges as a guiding force. Terry grapples with his conscience, wrestling with the moral implications of his choices. This inner turmoil, masterfully portrayed by Brando, underscores the pivotal role conscience plays in shaping our decisions and actions. It’s a reminder that, even under immense external pressure, our conscience can be a powerful compass for distinguishing right from wrong.

5. The Potential for Love to Transform

The budding romance between Terry and Edie Doyle, Joey’s sister, shines as a beacon of hope and transformation in the movie. Their love story showcases how love can mend wounds and ignite change. Edie’s influence on Terry is profound, sparking his desire to break free from the grip of corruption and seek a better life. This element of the narrative highlights the transformative power of love, demonstrating how it can inspire individuals to become better versions of themselves.

These additional lessons further illustrate the depth and complexity of this film:

  • The character of Father Barry, portrayed by Karl Malden, serves as a moral compass in the film. His dedication to the welfare of the dockworkers and his unwavering support for Terry’s transformation emphasize the impact of positive father figures or mentors in our lives. Father Barry teaches us that having someone who believes in our potential and guides us toward the right path can be transformative.
  • Throughout the movie, the consequences of silence in the face of wrongdoing are starkly portrayed. The dockworkers’ reluctance to speak out against corruption allows it to fester and persist. This highlights the damaging effects of staying silent when witnessing injustice, reminding us of the importance of speaking up for what is right.
  • “On the Waterfront” includes the gray areas of morality. Terry’s involvement in the murder of Joey Doyle, for instance, illustrates the complexity of moral choices in difficult circumstances. The film challenges us to consider the shades of gray in ethical dilemmas and encourages us to critically examine our own moral compass.
  • Terry’s decision to testify against the corrupt union leaders is a pivotal moment in the film. It underscores the transformative power of truth and the exposure of wrongdoing. “On the Waterfront” teaches us that shedding light on corruption and injustice can be a catalyst for change, even in the face of powerful adversaries.
  • The film explores the concept of loyalty and its limits. Terry’s loyalty to Johnny Friendly is tested as he witnesses the depths of corruption and violence. This aspect of the story reminds us that blind loyalty can sometimes lead us astray and that true loyalty should be grounded in principles and values.
  • Terry’s initial complicity in the corrupt union’s actions weighs heavily on his conscience. This part of the narrative highlights the personal consequences of being complicit in wrongdoing and serves as a cautionary tale about the moral toll such actions can take on an individual’s psyche.


“On the Waterfront” is not just a movie; it’s a profound narrative that offers a treasure trove of lessons, deeply relevant in today’s world. From the courage to confront injustice to the transformative might of love, this film stands as a testament to the complexities of human nature and our capacity for change. As we navigate life’s challenges, the timeless lessons woven into this classic can serve as guiding lights, leading us toward righteousness and moral integrity. Truly, this cinematic masterpiece remains an enduring guide, offering viewers an enriching and introspective journey, one frame at a time.

What On the Waterfront on Amazon Prime Video.