I’m working on an article about the absence of meaning in the universe, so I thought I would take a break and write something fun—not meaningful, but fun. I just watched On the Waterfront for, probably, the fifth time. The scene everyone knows is the one where Terry tells his brother, Charlie, “I could’ve been a contender.” And that’s the line everyone remembers, although I think most remember it with the wrong emotional overtone—it is actually forlorn. This is not the line that I remember when I think of this scene, however. To me, the critical line is, “It was you, Charlie.” Let’s watch it, shall we:
Most people see On The Waterfront as Elia Kazan’s answer to those (most notably, his close-friend Arthur Miller) who criticized him for testifying at the House Committee on Un-American Activities and providing names of former communists. Maybe it was in Kazan’s mind. It is certainly the case that even into his 90s, Kazan sounded very defensive about the whole thing. Also: the screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, similarly testified. But all such intentions, if real, are irrelevant. First, standing up against real corruption when it might cause your murder (the case in the film) is very different from standing up against a phantom enemy when it would at worst cost you some friends with the upside of most definitely making your career more stable. Second, writers create stories; readers create meaning.
Thus, I don’t see the film as political, and the main reason is the cab scene with Terry and Charlie. Although you don’t see the whole scene in the clip above, Terry has come looking for Charlie to get his advice. And Charlie has advice to give. First, he tries to bribe Terry with a great job. When that doesn’t work, Charlie threatens to shoot Terry. The arc of that scene is the arc of the movie. It is also the arc of Brando’s great monologue. It starts with, “It wasn’t him, Charlie: it was you” and ends with, “It was you, Charlie.” In this expression that he couldn’t even depend upon his own brother, Terry realizes that he is ultimately responsible. He enters the cab still a child—still hoping that his older brother will help him make his difficult decisions; he leaves the cab as an adult, understanding the impossibility of his expectations of Charlie. This scene is the turning point of the movie and of Terry’s life: the point at which he decides to take control of his destiny.
Even before he knows that Charlie is dead, Terry has begun to make his own decisions. And as the movie winds up, those decisions get better and better and show that he isn’t a bum; he is a contender; he is someone who really matters in a way that a prize fighter never could. It is ironic, then, that in becoming “a contender” in the real world rather than the boxing ring, he is almost beaten to death by Johnny Friendly’s associates. Afterwards, Terry stubbles, barely conscious, to lead the other workers into the dock to work. His arc is complete: he has found himself—a leader of men. Thus, the film is not about corrupt union bosses or whistle-blowers. It is about one man’s journey from follower to leader—in the best, and least used, sense of that word.
It wasn’t him, Terry: it was you. It was you, Terry.
1 I say the enemies were “phantom” because almost no one who was ever named was even a socialist, much less a communist. Of the people Kazan named, all were ex-communists (like Kazan himself). Even the most fervent supporters of the USSR backed off or broke completely when Stalin signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. The House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings were political theater—nothing more. And Kazan risked nothing by testifying.
2 In discussing the difference between “afterward” and “afterwards,” Fowler (in 1926) says, “Afterward, once the prevalent form, is now obsolete in British use, but survives in U.S.” I must check a more up to date reference. I tend to prefer “afterward,” but what Jesus Christ is to many, Henry Fowler is to me.