December Issue 2013
Classic Film Review: East of Eden
Elia Kazan brought John Steinbeck’s classic novel, East of Eden, to life for the big screen in 1955. The film is most notably remembered today for launching James Dean’s short-lived acting career in a role that was in many ways similar to his portrayal of Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, propelling Dean as the poster-boy of teenage angst for generations to come.
East of Eden is set just before and during the First World War and centres around a deeply religious and upright farmer named Adam (Raymond Massey) and his two sons, Caleb (Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos). While Aron is the apple of his father’s eye, the deeply troubled Cal is something of a black sheep. Adam’s genuine attempts at trying to understand his son are met with little success.
Adam is a “man of conscience” who is interested in serving others and occupies his time in trying to set up a lettuce business. But, because he is “not a worldly man,” he goes into a massive loss as his venture fails. Cal brings up the topic of profit (“War is good for business?”) to be made by growing beans and selling them at a much higher price during the war, but Adam is disgusted at his son’s exploitative ambition. Constantly rejected by his father, Cal thinks he must have inherited his ‘bad’ genes from his mother, who is said to have died and gone to heaven,” but in reality she has abandoned her children and husband to run a successful brothel in a nearby town.
Despite his father’s disapproval, Cal secretly takes a loan from his mother and goes and invests it in growing beans as he plans to present all the money he makes from it as a gift to his father.
As the film’s title may suggest, East of Eden contains many religious themes such as the struggle between good and evil and the nature of free will. The brothers’ vying for their father’s affection is clearly inspired by the story of Kane and Abel — the quintessential story of the ‘good son’ versus the ‘bad son.’ However, unlike the Biblical account of Kane, there is hope for redemption for Cal.
East of Eden has one overarching message: Love conquers all, even those considered beyond salvation.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2013 issue under the headline, “Kane and Abel.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.