On the Irish Waterfront

The Back Story of a Classic Film

Dec. 31, 1969
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Along with A Streetcar Named Desire, director Elia Kazan contributed one other classic to any probable top 100 or 200 lists of the greatest films: On the Waterfront (1954). From the get-go, leftist critics charged that this movie, in which Marlon Brandos disgruntled dockworker eventually rebels against the tyranny of a corrupt union and testifies about their activities, was Kazans justification for testimony against his Communist ex-comrades during the McCarthy era.

There may be an ounce of truth in the old accusation, but a new book finds the meat of the matter elsewhere. On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York (Cornell University Press) is an exhaustive investigation into the facts on the ground at the wharfs lining the New York and New Jersey shores through the era when the movie was filmed. The author, Fordham University theology and American studies professor James T. Fisher, finds the engine of the story in the Roman Catholic priest (played in the film by Carl Malden) who gathers his courage and rallies his flock to challenge conditions on the docks.

Maldens character was based on a real activist priest, John M. Pete Corridan, filtered through the well-established Hollywood image of the two-fisted Irish priest and amplified by what Kazan called the mysterious way of art. Of necessity, Kazans collaborator, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, shaped a complicated story into a dramatic narrative. Reassembling the back-story forms much of Fishers book.

What Fisher finds is a decades long story of ethnic rivalry, violence and the pursuit of power and money under the guise of governmental agencies and unions, with unscrupulous shipping companies and the Catholic church playing the game. Irish gangsters wrestled control over much of the waterfront and the church hierarchy co-operated, largely to thwart the spread of Communism among the workers. But by the 1940s Roman Catholic social teachings began to inspire some priests to preach a different line and reject a status quo that tended to strip the majority of dockworkers of dignity and security, leaving them in the hands of their avaricious leaders. One of the problems they faced was dramatized well in the film: a code of silence with death as the likely penalty for violators.

Although Kazans On the Waterfront concludes with a hard-fought happy ending, Fisher discovers that the truth was not as encouraging. Corridan was eventually silenced by unsympathetic Jesuit superiors and some of the problems on the docks continued under different guises. On the Irish Waterfront is an example of history writing at its bestgrounded in careful scholarship, fair minded yet unafraid to speak the truth.

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