Ranking: #81/111

Director: Elia Kazan (USA)

Genre: Socio-Psychological Drama

East of Eden shows the power of cinematic story-telling at its most intense, especially as some of the actors, including James Dean, were operating at the peak of their powers of expression.

The film is both a pastoral period drama, set during World War 1 in Monterey California and the Salinas Valley and an intensely psychological social drama. In a way, it’s a Film Noir drama disguised in rich WarnerColor and Cinemascope.

The film features what is probably the best role James Dean played in his short career. He is Cal, the younger son of a remote, rather pious father, Adam Trask, who favours his other son, Aron. In the almost primordial rivalry between the two brothers, there are biblical overtones of the story of Cain and Abel. With his magnetic screen presence, Dean was able to carry much of the meaning, tone and narrative tension upon which the film’s impact depended.

Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel with the same title, the screenplay positively bristles with scenes of emotional conflict. In the hands of one of American cinema’s most accomplished directors, Elia Kazan, the story has enough elemental power and meaning to become like a modern biblical parable. 

Kazan skilfully uses the mercurial Dean, cast as the black sheep of the family, as a narrative catalyst. The youngster is a troubled soul, subject to explosive outbursts, whose wild persona belies a tenderness and emotional fragility deep inside him. It is through his search to find his biological mother, who runs a seedy brothel in a small, nearby town, that Cal breaks open the façade of self-righteousness and piousness carefully upheld by his father in the household. This enables the film to ask the really searching questions about the reality behind the family façade, finally unearthing the truths that have been hidden for so long. It is Cal, too, with his heart-cries of “It’s awful not to be loved” and “I’ve been jealous all my life”, who forces his father to confront his failings as a father. The patriarch’s favouring of Aron has led to constant pain for Cal, who only ever wanted his distant father’s approval and acceptance.  He reaches a point of despair. And Dean has the acting skills to portray this conflict with his father and, ultimately, their reconciliation, with effortless genuineness.  Interspersed with the explosive scenes are moments that are deeply touching and gentle.

And the contrast between the two brothers is vividly sketched. While Aron is mild-mannered and self-confident, Cal is wild-mannered and emotionally torn up. While Aron is the apple of his father’s eye, Cal is the distrusted and volatile younger son. And while clean-cut, obedient Aron seems to embody the promise of the American Dream, Cal embodies an American Dream gone awry, which has lost its way through excessive materialism and a lack of real love.

Kazan skilfully weaves the war in Europe into the narrative, without even showing any footage of the conflict. Firstly, Cal is able to show his true entrepreneurial spirit by investing in beans which he has been told will shoot up in price due to increased demand arising from the war. After his father has lost money in investing too early in refrigeration for transporting lettuce, Cal is determined to give him the proceeds of his investment, another sign of his filial love. Secondly, there is a growing anti-German sentiment which rises to the surface in town during the period of the war. And, thirdly, when Cal shatters the façade of his brother’s life by taking him to see his mother, whom the father has always maintained had died, Aron takes the radical step of enlisting in the army. Their father goes into shock when he finds out his favourite son is leaving to take part in the war, and this shock brings on a stroke. With Aron gone, Cal nurses his father lovingly. A dysfunctional family, which had buried the shame of the breakdown of the parent’s marriage and denied the existence of the mother for years and years, has been split apart, with only one half finally made whole.

What I love about this film is the way it embeds its powerful themes in detailed and evocative interior and exterior settings and in superbly controlled acting, exemplifying the essence of drama. And what I love even more is Kazan’s commitment to moral authenticity. All of this must have made John Steinbeck himself very proud when he saw his novel come alive with such unstoppable power.