On the Waterfront

Raises important issues about the nature of power.
  • Review Date: May 7, 2003
  • Rated: NR
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1954
  • Running Time: 108 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages
Not applicable

Fighting; menacing thugs; a body hung on a fence to intimidate another character.

Not applicable
Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Alcohol in tavern. Terry takes Edie for her first beer, which makes her a little giddy.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this movie raises some important issues about the nature of power.

What's the story?

ON THE WATERFRONT is the story of the men who had the courage to stand up to the corrupt longshoreman's union, which is controlled by Johnny (Lee J. Cobb). One of Johnny's top aides is Charley (Rod Steiger), whose brother Terry (Marlon Brando), a former prize-fighter, is treated almost like a mascot by Johnny -- he makes sure that Terry gets the best work assignments. After Terry unwittingly contributes to the death of a man named Joey, who dared to speak out about union corruption, Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) goes to local priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) for help. Father Barry sets up a meeting to talk about what's going on, but everyone is too scared to speak up. Finally a man named Dugan (Pat Henning) agrees to talk, but tragedy strikes again. Meanwhile, Terry and Edie fall in love -- but Terry's troubles are just beginning.

Is it any good?


On the Waterfront contrasts two conflicting ways of looking at the world and especially at responsibility. Edie and Father Berry see a world in which people have an obligation to protect and support each other. Johnny sees the world as a place where what matters is taking as much as you can. Terry is somewhere in the middle, with his kindness to the Golden Warriors and his pigeons on one side and his willingness to take what Johnny's way of life has to offer on the other. In part, Terry falls in love not just with Edie, but with the vision of another life that Edie represents. Like Edie, Terry is inspired to fight back by a tragic death.

This movie also raises some important issues about the nature of power. At the beginning, Johnny seems very powerful, and power matters more to him than money. But it is clear that the choices he makes to protect that power, more than any action taken by anyone else, are the beginning of the end. As he orders people killed, even close associates, he begins to appear desperate. The men who will kick back a few dollars and stay "D&D" about corruption won't stand for that level of violence and uncertainty.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about how Joey's jacket is worn by three different characters. What do you think that means? What do you think of Edie's ideas about what makes people "mean and difficult?" Do you think that applies to Johnny? How does Johnny get power? How does he lose it?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:July 28, 1954
DVD release date:January 23, 2001
Cast:Karl Malden, Lee Cobb, Marlon Brando
Director:Elia Kazan
Studio:Columbia Tristar
Run time:108 minutes
MPAA rating:NR

This review of On the Waterfront was written by

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

Find out more

About our buy links

When you use our links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. Thank you for your support.
Read more

See more about how we rate and review.

About Our Rating System

The age displayed for each title is the minimum one for which it's developmentally appropriate. We recently updated all of our reviews to show only this age, rather than the multi-color "slider." Get more information about our ratings.

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Teen, 16 years old Written bysgt123 May 16, 2015
age 14+

One of the greatest movies of all time, but disturbing and violent.

Very intense film contains violence, sustained threat and menace. However no sex and very little (if any) language.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Teen, 16 years old Written byBestPicture1996 May 1, 2012
age 11+

Classic good vs. evil story

I'll be perfectly honest: the first time I tried to watch this I fell asleep within the first few minutes. But that was a while ago, and the other month when I watched it, I was fully awake, and amazed at what I saw. Brando gives one of the screen's greatest performances as Terry, a man just trying to do good. The acting in this movie is phenomenal, and it should be at the top of everyone's classic movies list to see.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Adult Written bysarahkay89 November 17, 2010
age 13+

Good movie. Adult and teen will enjoy.

I really like this movie. Shows the reality of crooked unions leaders and a battle of justice for the "little guy" May bore a young viewer (its filmed in black and white) but I recently watched it with a young teen who enjoyed it. Violence is throughout movie. Thugs murdering and beating up people and animals, etc. Overall, good message of fighting for what you believe in and not cowering to bullies with threats and weapons. Also shows how they went through appropriate channels to seek justice. Didn't just take law in own hands, but sought the judicial system and tried to settle things the right way first.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Great role models


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?

Digital Compass