I recently watched the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” starring James Dean and Natalie Wood. The movie hit the screens in 1955, that’s 63 years ago. I think I saw it twice when it originally came out but that was decades ago.
The only thing I remember well from “way back when” were the two violent scenes. Jim Stark (James Dean) and the gang leader were playing “chicken.” They were to ride toward a cliff in old cars and the one who got out first was “chicken.” The gang leader’s coat got caught on the door that prevented him from opening his door. He ended up at the bottom of the cliff dead.
The other violent scene was at the end of the movie when Plato (Sal Mineo) was exiting the building where he was hiding and was shot by the police. The thing that impressed me was I only remembered those violent scenes. That stayed in my memory while the other parts of the movie were very vague.
This made me wonder about the power that violent scenes have on our psychological make-up. These scenes were in no way equal to the violence we see on our televisions, movie screens, and video games today. No one was blown up. One reason we have so much violence in our society is that it’s all around us. Even our evening news features violence.
The movie is about dysfunctional families, bullying, loneliness, and the good and harmful effect we have on each other. It’s also about hope. We can all change. We can all learn to love and care for others. Sounds familiar? It’s about life today. The same issues, a different time.
Jim Stark’s family is well off, but his parents and his maternal grandmother are constantly fighting with each other. The family bickering has a tremendous effect on Jim. He says, “You’re tearing me apart! You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.”
At one point in the film Jim asks his emasculated father, Frank Stark, “What can you do when you have to be a man?” His father doesn’t know. Earlier Jim tells the officer, “She eats him alive, and he takes it.” Like Hamlet, Jim feels a pointless choice between being and not being.
Jim has a hard time making friends and his parents keep moving from city to city. The first time Jim talks with Judy (Natalie Wood), the girl next door, she’s ready for him. He says, “You live here, don’t you?” She answers, “Who lives?” These are lost people going nowhere.
The other major character in the movie is short, lonely, angry and persecuted Plato (Sal Mineo). His parents are divorced and his mother is never home. A motherly black housekeeper is raising him. He wants to be friends with Jim, but Jim is primarily interested in Judy.
In a dinner scene, Judy gives her father (William Hopper) a peck on the cheek, and he reacts with embarrassment, “What’s the matter with you? You’re getting too old for that kind of stuff.” Judy responds: “Girls don’t love their father? Since when? Since I got to be 16?” Her father is probably afraid of his sexual feelings toward his daughter. Another failed father.
The movie ends when Jim, July and Plato hid out in a deserted mansion near the observatory. In a tender scene, Plato goes to sleep at the feet of Jim and Judy, while she hums Brahms’ “Lullaby” and Jim observes that they are like a family. It feels good. Jim and July also acknowledge their love for each other. Love and caring can change people.
When Plato wakes us, he thinks his friends have abandoned him. Jim tries to calm Plato but his fears take over and he is eventually shot by the police. However, the power of love has changed everyone. Christ’s love can change us too.