Original release: March 9th, doctor 1955
Running time: 110 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writer: Paul Osborn
Composer: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo van Fleet, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, Lois Smith, Harold Gordon, Albert Dekker
My father’s love was something I always yearned for. Sometimes even his approval might’ve sufficed. Whether it was for my grades at school, what I chose to study at university or the way in which I went on to live to my adult life, I wanted it desperately from him. The thing was, I never got either, and for the first months after his death that haunted me no end because it suddenly occurred to me that I’d wasted a great deal of my life trying to please a man who was never pleased by anything the world had to offer. Deep down I must’ve known along, it’s the only way to explain the way in which I over-identified with James Dean’s character in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s mammoth novel, East Of Eden.
It was during the summer of 1994 when I first saw it. That was the year my fascination with the actor turned into obsession. I was 15 at the time and going through a rebellious stage in an attempt to distance myself from my childhood and distinguish myself from my older brothers. I cut my hair short, started wearing boots and leather jackets, listening to jazz, reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and watching the films of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean religiously. I was shy, aloof and awkward, but no longer confused about my sexuality thanks to the collection of biographies on these actors I’d already consumed over the course of that summer. While the iconic Rebel Without A Cause spoke to generations of alienated teens, as I watched East Of Eden I felt it was speaking to me and me alone about the love I still wanted from my father, despite my rebellion.
Set in a small farming valley in California in 1917,just before the US entry into WWI, it introduces us to two brothers, Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) who fight for the love of their stern, over-bearing, widowed father, Adam (Raymond Massey). While Aron learns his Bible, works hard and does everything to please Adam, Cal can’t seem to help getting into trouble, even when he tries his best. After learning that his mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), is still alive and running a brothel in Monterey, he goes to look for her and find out why she left them. Cal thinks this bad side of him must come from his mother and his decision to bring Aron face to face with her is based on nothing but spite.
There’s also Aron’s fiancée, Abra (Julie Harris). While most people in the town think Cal’s no-good, Abra believes there’s more to him and tries to nurture his good side. Eventually she admits to having feelings for him, and this becomes another betrayal to his good brother, Aron. Unable to deal with the truth about his mother, the distraught boy goes on to enlist in an army unit being shipped overseas to the battlefields of France, leaving Adam – a pacifist – completely broken down. Adam suffers a devastating stroke, but with Abra as a bond between these two forces, she helps Cal reconcile with his father and with his brother gone he’s finally able to care for him in a way he’s never been able to before.
East Of Eden then and now is a powerful emotional drama that had a tremendous effect on me. The scene where Adam rejects Cal’s birthday gift because it came from the profits of war is nothing short but heartbreaking. Cal, in thinking that he could help his father by giving him money, is rebuked for his actions and scolded. Dean plays the scene magnificently, calling on what must’ve been his own difficult memories of his father. It’s even more charged than the one in Rebel Without A Cause when Jim Stark (Dean’s character) loses it with his parents and exclaims “You’re tearing me apart!”
“Mr. Trask, it’s awful not to be loved. It’s the worst thing in the world. Don’t ask me – even if you could – how I know that. I just know it. It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel. And that’s the way Cal has always felt, Mr. Trask. All his life! Maybe you didn’t mean it that way – but it’s true. You never gave him your love. You never asked for his. You never asked him for one thing.”
There was a time after my father’s death when I couldn’t bear to watch East Of Eden, but after seeing it again recently it made me realise the same thing Cal did. After trying so hard for so long I no longer want my father’s love, I can’t use it anymore. He’s gone and the man I am now is one that’s been shaped by all of these experiences, good and bad. That he missed my childhood, my high school years and my graduation, that he never taught me to ride a bike, throw a ball or drive a car, that he never shared a drink with me, paid me a visit, called me on the phone, told me “Happy Birthday” or gave me a hug, all of this made me what I am today but in the end it was his loss. I learned all of those things on my own and I’ll learn many more, but I don’t need father figures anymore. He always complained his children were a disappointment, but he never got to know the one that tried the hardest simply because he turned out gay.
Films offer us a way to help manage our lives, emotions and dreams and this is especially true of East Of Eden. As something I first watched as a 15 year old, and now as a 35 year old, the 20 years of life in between were experienced again simultaneously in those 110 minutes, giving me a chance to finally stop rebelling, start living and letting go because the time and opportunity for anything else had long passed and was always out of my hands anyway.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .