Study Guide

On the Waterfront Father Barry (Karl Malden)

Father Barry (Karl Malden)

Not a Couch Potato Priest

When we think of noble priests, we usually think of priests that perform incredible feats like getting demons to stop vacationing in little girl's minds (The Exorcist) or solving weird symbolic multiple murders (The Name of The Rose).

But Father Barry isn't flashy like that. He's a salt-of-the-earth dude who just wants the side of good to triumph over the side of…mob-run unions.

Father Barry's role is in helping Terry and the other dockworkers find the moral strength they need to take on Johnny Friendly's gang. He's the kind of priest who's really involved in his community: he's not just eating Cheez-Its and watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother. (Is that what priests do when they're feeling lazy? Because that's what we do when we're feeling lazy.)

Nope: he's getting into the middle of conflicts involving the corrupt and murderous union controlling the docks.

After Joey Doyle's murdered, Barry tells Edie that she can find him in the church if she needs him. When Edie asks him, "What kind of saint ever hid in a church?" it stings Barry's conscience. He realizes he needs to put himself out there more, and help the people in his neighborhood solve their social problems.

Barry's definitely a people person—unless those people are bloodthirsty gangsters. After going with Edie to see what's going on at the docks, he realizes that Johnny's gang is controlling the docks, exploiting the works, and has murdered Joey. He talks some of the workers into coming over to the church to discuss what to do about this.

At the meeting, Barry speaks the truth, telling them:

BARRY: Isn't it simple as one, two, three? One, the working conditions are bad. Two, they're bad because the mob does the hiring. And three, the only way we can break the mob is to stop letting them get away with murder… There's one thing we've got in this country and that's ways of fightin' back. Gettin' the facts to the public. Testifyin' for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now what's ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now can't you see that? Can't you see that?

But the workers are too scared to speak up. They've already seen that Johnny's willing to kill to keep power. At the same time, though, they're all courageous enough to show up at this meeting. And Barry is courageous in asking them here. He's pretty much begging Johnny to attack—which he does, beating up the workers.

Jesus Take the Wheel—or, Rather, Dock

But Barry's not finished. He gets one of the men, Kayo Dugan, to agree to testify. Job well-done, right?

Unfortunately, word gets around that Dugan's going to testify (Johnny apparently has informers in the police department), and Johnny's men arrange an "accident" in which Dugan gets crushed by a bunch of whiskey crates. So, Barry's in this deep now—he urged Dugan to testify, and now he has to either keep pushing or back off.

He keeps pushing.

Barry shows up, and gives an amazing speech standing over Dugan's body. It's a moment of major moral courage. And he continues giving the speech, even after Johnny's men throw trash at him. He shows how faith can help the workers see their situation with clarity:

BARRY: Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle's life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that's a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead... Boys, this is my church! And if you don't think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you've got another guess coming!

Barry is arguing that any moment when a good person is persecuted, and suffers for a noble cause, is a version of the crucifixion. This is his deepest conviction, and the movie's moral argument.

Barry goes on to denounce the triumph of greedy people like Johnny, and urge the workers to view each other as brothers in Christ:

BARRY: You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of the lousy buck - the cushy job - more important than the love of man! It's forgettin' that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ! …But remember, Christ is always with you - Christ is in the shape up. He's in the hatch. He's in the union hall. He's kneeling right here beside Dugan. And He's saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me! And what they did to Joey, and what they did to Dugan, they're doing to you. And you. You. All of you. And only you, only you with God's help, have the power to knock 'em out for good.

Dang. Those are some inspiring words.

Trix Are For Kids—But Love And Justice Are For Everyone

But there's one man willing to testify, and that's Terry. Barry plays the necessary role of harassing him—Terry's not going to snitch without getting a little encouragement, and righteous anger, thrown in his direction.

And Barry also forces him to tell Edie the truth. Like Edie herself, Barry is the movie's moral conscience, prodding Terry into action, and forcing him to listen to his own inner Jiminy Cricket.

He continues to act as moral watchdog: after the gang kills Terry's brother, Charley, Terry wants to seek revenge. But Barry confronts Terry, and makes him seek revenge the right way…by testifying, instead of trying to shoot Johnny dead and going out in a blaze of glory in the process.

At the very end, he's there again. After Terry's damaged Johnny with his testimony, Johnny's henchmen beat Terry up and leave him bloody and seemingly defeated. But Barry shows up, with Edie, and urges Terry to get up and walk into work. Once again, he prods Terry into acting—but this time, Terry finally brings down the mob. All the other workers follow Terry, finally abandoning Johnny.

So that's Barry: morally courageous, giving brilliant speeches, and acting as Terry's conscience. We don't really see his home life, or learn anything else about him. But that's because Barry's so committed: his life is a moral crusade for the truth.

He feels about justice, love, and truth the same way the Trix Rabbit feels about Trix: he just can't get enough.