Top 10 Union Movies
On the Waterfront, 1954
The story of a battered ex-boxer and dockworker (Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy) standing up to his corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly) would have been familiar to any newspaper reader of the time. Friendly was based on Michael "Big Mike" Clemente of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), whose gangster tactics led to its suspension in 1953 by the American Federation of Labor. The following winter, with a burly bodyguard to protect him from ILA goons, director Elia Kazan shot Budd Schulberg's script on the Hoboken, N.J., docks; Brando later said it was "so cold out there you couldn't overact." Like How Green Was My Valley, the movie finds its mouthpiece in a crusading priest (Karl Malden), who spells out the equation of venality: "1) the working conditions are bad, 2) they're bad because the Mob does the hiring, and 3) the only way we can break the Mob is to stop letting them get away with murder."
This was the first picture for Kazan and Schulberg since they had testified about their Communist Party affiliations named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee; many critics saw the film as an informant's apologia. But it's really a little-guy-against-the-system fable with exposé trimmings. By interlacing the dock strife with Terry's gnarly relationship with his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger), in the renowned "I coulda been a contender" speech, Schulberg delivered a rough meditation on brotherhood and its betrayals at work and at home. The winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay, Waterfront has an emotional power and wealth of character detail that make it as vital today as when it was shot.