I’ve never fallen into James Dean-craze before. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dean was an actor that helped start the trend of rebellious teens that wished to be independent and treated as more than just offspring, and it is certainly tragic that he was taken away from us so early, but he only had three credited roles – “East Of Eden,” “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant.”
Personally, that’s not enough for me to be truly impressed by his acting ability. Dean played similar roles in all three films, ones who were always defiant but had a lot to prove, so there was little variety. If Dean had been in a few more movies, maybe given us something more than just the prototype for the counter-culture, then I could get behind him. But, as an actor, three roles is very little to go on.
“East Of Eden” is the last film starring James Dean that I have seen, and his presence alone is the reason this film is still talked about these days. Which is unfortunate, because the story is far more laid-back than “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Giant,” and the film gives us a touching story about a strained family trying to live together, only to realize the belong in vastly different worlds.
The film follows the Trask family, the hard-working father Adam (Raymond Massey), the dutiful and hard-working son Aron (Richard Davalos), and the rebel Cal (James Dean). Cal has found out that his mother is alive, even though Adam told his sons their mother died when they were young. She is a wealthy business woman in a nearby town and practically runs the town. After a business venture doesn’t pay off for Adam, costing him just about everything he owns, Cal intends to get that money back by investing in the upcoming World War I.
“East Of Eden” gets great near the end, as we see just how far Cal is willing to go to earn his father’s love. We learn that Cal takes after his mother, stubborn, independent and willing to fight back, especially when others try to chain them down. Although it is never said, Adam seems to resent Cal for that behavior. Whether it is because Cal is making Adam look bad or because Cal reminds him of his wife is unclear, but Adam always treated Cal differently from Aron.
By the end of the film, Cal is not only willing to do anything to get his father to love him, he is also willing to buy it.
“East Of Eden” also shows the distance between time and how it changes a man. Adam grew up in a peaceful time where he was allowed to pursue his religious beliefs, while Cal has grown up in a divided time with war right around the corner. Cal sees no problem in benefitting from the war, because he is helping the troops by raising the money for their beans. But Adam only sees death and destruction out of this, and doesn’t want any part of this greed from war.
This makes the last half-hour of “East Of Eden” show gripping, as we watch these two world views and personalities collide. Combine this with two great performances from Dean and Massey and we’re left with wondering how these two didn’t tear each other apart years ago.
Overall, “East Of Eden” is a tale of a family realizing their differences and where they belong in the world, while still learning to love one another. This film would make sure that we wouldn’t forget James Dean any time soon, and his unfortunate death created his legacy that we will never forget.
Final Grade: B-