Study Guide

On the Waterfront Hero's Journey

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Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

Terry's "ordinary world" isn't a nice, normal life with a family and kids. He's stuck in the brutal criminal underground, controlled by gang leader Johnny Friendly and Terry's big bro, Charley. Although the criminals seem happy—since they're making money—Terry's not thrilled to be a part of it.

He finds himself doing super-dubious things, like luring Joey Doyle onto a roof by telling him he wants to return an escaped pigeon. Then, Johnny's henchman kill Joey (they suspect him, correctly, of talking about their dirty deeds to the cops).

Terry is wracked with guilt. Even though Johnny and Charley try to convince him it's all right, he can't stop the Jiminy Cricket of his conscience from chirping.

Call To Adventure

Later, at the docks, men from the Waterfront Crime Commission approach him. They want Terry to tell them if he knows anything about Joey's death. Also, Edie Doyle is down at the docks, scrambling to get a slip permitting her father to work that day.

Terry grabs a slip for himself, but gives it to Edie when someone says she's Joey's sister. His guilty feelings are in overdrive.

Refusal Of The Call

But Terry's not ready to rebel against Johnny's gang yet. He tells the Waterfront Commission guys to beat it. And he's not exactly breaking down and confessing to Edie. Terry's still stewing in his juices, still unsure what he's supposed to do. He just needs to stew a little longer…

Meeting The Mentor

Johnny orders Terry to go spy on a meeting Father Barry is holding with the longshoreman. Barry, a noble priest, is trying to organize everyone against Johnny and convince them to spill the beans on his criminal activities.

Terry shows up and everyone regards him with suspicion—but Barry continues to press his case. He makes some good points, and ends up proving an important influence on Terry. Also, Edie's present—and she's going to grind away at Terry's conscience too.

Crossing The Threshold

Johnny sends thugs to break up the meeting—which gives Terry the perfect change to get a little one-on-one time with Edie. He helps her escape the meeting, and they bond, talking about their lives and how they remember each other from when they were younger.

Terry's committed now: he just helped the girl who wants to bring Johnny down. He's started to go against the flow, accepting the "call to adventure." Later, he involves himself even more, lying and telling Johnny that nothing was going on at the meeting.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Now, Terry has to decide whether to go all the way, and testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about Joey's murder. Edie, Father Barry, and Glover from the Crime Commission all work on him, trying to get him to wise up and do the right thing. But Terry's still on the fence—he hasn't fully decided.

At the same time, Johnny and Charley are keeping an eye on him, suspecting him of becoming sympathetic to Edie and Father Barry's cause. They even murder Kayo Dugan, another longshoreman who's planning on testifying to the police. Something's got to give…

Approach To The Inmost Cave

Terry seeks out Father Barry, and tells him the truth about Joey's murder, and Barry tells him that he has to spill the beans to Edie. So he confesses to Edie and—predictably—it doesn't go over well.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Johnny's strongly considering killing Terry before he can testify. He lets Charley try to talk some sense into Terry, but it ends up having the opposite effect. Charley pulls a gun on Terry, trying to force him to change his mind—but it doesn't work, and Charley feels like a jerk. Terry tells him some hard truths about how Charley and the gang ruined his boxing career.

So, Charley lets him escape. It's the least he could do…


But, in retaliation, Johnny kills Charley. Although Terry makes up with Edie, this happy reunion is cut short when they find Charley's body outside the apartment, riddled with bullets and hanging on a hook.


Terry's insane with anger and grief. He grabs a gun and heads off to shoot Johnny—which would probably get Terry killed in the process. But Father Barry catches up with him and says that Terry has to do this the right way, brining Johnny down through testimony in court. When this sensible discussion doesn't work, Barry punches him. Eventually, Terry surrenders his gun and relents. He's going to do the right thing.

Reward (Seizing The Sword)

Terry shows some serious guts: he heads into court and, surrounded by Johnny and his crooks, accuses him of Joey's murder. This permanently discredits Johnny's whole operation in the eyes of the law.

He hasn't officially been charged with murder yet, but his business connections start to abandon him. Terry has exposed Johnny's true nature to the world.

The Road Back

Unfortunately, the people in the neighborhood don't recognize the nobility of this. Everyone turns against him. They ignore Terry—who's now under police protection—giving him the cold shoulder.

And a little psycho kid, Jimmy, who used to look up to Terry, goes and throttles all the pigeons that live in a coop on the roof to death. (Terry's been taking care of the pigeons). Jimmy throws one of their dead bodies at Terry, shouting, "A pigeon for a pigeon!"

So, Terry did the right thing—and now all his neighbors hate him.


But, it turns out, the longshoreman aren't really against him. They admire Terry's courage.

When Terry shows up for work, Johnny and his gang are waiting for him. Terry confronts them, and when he refuses to leave, the gang beats him up. Father Barry and Edie urge a bloody Terry to pick himself up. They tell him that the longshoremen say they'll go to work if Terry goes to work—instead of letting Johnny tell them what to do.

So, Terry stands up, and gets ready to walk.

Return With The Elixir

Physically injured, but still alive, Terry walks past all the workers, and steps through the threshold of a warehouse on the docks. After he makes it, they all follow him, directly disobeying Johnny's orders. Johnny rails against them, but it's over. He's powerless.

By finding courage within himself, Terry's given courage to everyone else. They've all found the ability to stand up for themselves—and, since Johnny can only control them if they all agree to remain silent, this ruins Johnny's racket.

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