‘Only the gentle are ever really strong,’ once quipped James Dean, which is also perhaps the most fitting description of Dean’s performance as Cal Trask, a young man fighting for his father’s attention in Salinas, California in 1917.
Adapted from John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, East of Eden is a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Brothers Cal and Aron live with their deeply religious father, Adam in Salinas during the First World War. Cal, the more inquisitive of the two brothers discovers that his mother is living nearby after his father lied about her death years before. Jealous of his older brother Aron’s relationship with their father, Cal secretly visits his mother to confront her about leaving her sons behind, blaming her for his insecurities and his father’s resentment toward him. Although Cal wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps in the agricultural business, he is more like his mother and despite initially seeing his mother as an evil figure, he soon sees a different side to the story. Both Cal and his mother are business-minded and exceed in reality, while Adam and Aron are both lost in their own illusions and their own idolised Eden.
Raymond Massey plays Adam Trask and the striking contrast between Massey’s wooden portrayal of Adam and James Dean’s portrayal of Cal is what makes the father/son relationship so effective. Elia Kazan reportedly regretted casting Raymond Massey as Adam, however, Massey’s old school Hollywood approach versus Dean’s innovative method acting creates a clear tension between the two and is deeply ingrained in both performances. In the final sequence of the film, Cal sits by his father on his deathbed and whispers something in his ear which we purposely are not meant to hear, as this is strictly between father and son. In this final scene the brother’s roles have reversed and we see Cal comforting his father in his final moments.
Stunningly shot by Ted D. McCord, the sprawling landscapes in East of Eden are awe-inspiring and echo Steinbeck’s vivid descriptions of the Salinas Valley. Although the film only focuses on the last quarter of the book, Kazan’s adaptation is a masterpiece of 1950s cinema. James Dean also plays against the usual depiction of ‘strong’ male Hollywood protagonists and instead brings a vulnerable, sensual performance to the role. Only the gentle are ever really strong.