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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rebel at the End of the World: and Essay

I have no date for this, it was written sometime in the first three months of 2011 for a Radio Television and Film class at a state school.

The assignment was “Rebel Without a Cause” and I got an A- for my work. I have included my references for your approval. 

Rebel at the End of the World

“Rebel Without a Cause” was an act of Hollywood addressing the breakdown of family in the light of the cold war. The failure of family is the most overt theme. The three main characters all have grossly dysfunctional families and all three suffer some abandonment. However, the theme of the world ending in nuclear fire is a looming cloud over the heads of the characters and their families. If one were not familiar with the time in witch “Rebel Without a Cause” was set and written the references to the cold war might be missed. None the less, the end of the world was something people truly thought they might see living in the time of the film.
The three characters of Jim, Judy, and Plato start the movie as troubled youths all hauled into a police station for varying reasons. Plato’s reason is the most heinous because it involves the destruction of something innocent, puppies, and is the foreshadowing of his own end.  The idea that Plato kills these puppies because they never knew their father and would be abandoned by their mother(Wood) is a tempting one. However, the actions of the world around Plato are more of note here than his own actions. The crime Plato has committed is cruelty to animals, and if nothing else he should have been held by police because of his mental instability.
An underage boy with a firearm who has just killed puppies is certainly a danger to himself and others.  Yet, it is unclear if the police have taken any action whatsoever other than just calling his home and having his made come get him. As we learn later in the film Plato still has access to the firearm, and this access proves to be his death. This would imply that all charges were dropped. Plato’s mother and father are absent from this movie and he, needing that parent figure, called out for help by committing a crime. His call was denied by the authorities, and instead of taking interest in his case he was sent home to deal with his problems on his own.
It is implied that this happens often to Plato when Jim offers him his Jacket. Plato refuses the act of kindness by refusing to speak to Jim. This act of mistrust comes up again later in the story when Plato is cornered by Buzz’s thugs in the old mansion. Plato screams “why did you leave me?” and “You’re not my father” rejecting Jim seeing this as another act of betrayal.  The strength of Plato’s response is one excepted by the audience because of his previous neurotic actions. Plato is a nervous character living on a knife’s edge of emotion.
This knife’s edge would have resonated in the audience of the time. One of the most important events preceding the film was the death of Josef Stalin and the ceasefire of the Korean War. It was a ceasefire not a victory, a momentary end to aggression that could start up again at any moment. Korea was a situation as volatile as the mind of Plato through the course of the movie. Moreover, Plato is a Greek name and the Greek Civil War was the first major conflict in the overall Cold War (Hermes 6-9). It is tempting to say that without the United States Greece would have fallen to the communists just as without intervention Plato is doomed, but this is reading too far into the reference. It is enough to say that Americans should have looked at Plato and his gun and been reminded of a war that ended only five years earlier. The Greek Civil War was a major victory for NATO and the United States but it was dissention among the communists that led to our victory. Again it is a long shot to say that there is a paralleled between the in family disagreements of the communists and the family problems of the character but the connection would resonate with the audience of the day.
Another tempting idea is that the presence of the red dress and jacket are symbolic for the red of communism. This idea is almost completely ridiculous given that the red jacket worn by Jim was an afterthought. Red, however, is an important symbol in the movie. In the first scene Judy is wearing a red dress and has red lipstick. She talks about her father rubbing her lipstick off. This is her moment of greatest distress and it is dominated by red. Red for Judy has the double meaning of gaining her father’s attention and drawing his anger (Wood). In her final words in this scene “My mother, you said it would be my father!” This indicates that her acting out is a bid for his attention. It is a commonly held idea that to the deprived any attention is good attention.
Judy’s father’s response is anything but encouraging. When we see her at home there is no mention of the event. Moreover, her father’s violent reaction to her affection tells us of his own mixed emotions. In this time period there would be nothing wrong with a daughter kissing her father. It is he that feels there is something dirty about this and his lashing out, his striking his own daughter, is an act of guilt. This man is attracted to his own little girl and rather than admit that something is wrong he turns his affections to anger.
Red in this scene is muted and pushed into the fore and background. Its strongest place is on Judy’s brother’s clothes, and it resides there because likewise residing there is Judy’s father’s affection. The embrace Judy’s father gives her brother is coveted by Judy. In the same moment we see his coldness towards her and his warmth toward his son. Judy looks cold in pale blue and her brother warm in bright red. If red is the symbol of Judy’s desire than her brother has what she wants.
Red in the film is desire and the desire driving the characters is the “search for the father” (Eisenschitz 254) then the act of Jim putting the red jacket on is the act of him accepting the role as object of desire. Jim is first rejected by Judy and the jacket is lost but red is never missing from his character. His pants at the planetarium are maroon and his tie a dark red. Red is often seen in the background of the chickie run scene implying that desire is in the air, and the red slash, signaling the death of Buzz, is desire permeating the air.
In the very end of the film Jim takes off his red jacket and gives it to Plato. This is because desire is transferred onto Plato as the focus of the action. Jim is trying to save Plato at the end. The desire to have saved the poor boy will live on forever in the lives of Jim and Judy.
It is indeed symbolic that the death takes place at the planetarium. The planetarium is connected with death and is the place where the plans that lead to the death of Buzz were laid. Both times the planetarium is visited the end of the world is discussed. The first time the earth is regarded to have already been destroyed by the planetarium director and his gross failure to intervene in the fight between Buzz and Jim leads to destruction.  The second time they arrive at the planetarium Plato asks Jim when he thinks the end of the world will happen. Jim tells him “At dawn.” Shortly after Plato is killed by police.
The planetarium is the symbol for technology and where as the space race will not kick off until Sputnik in 57 the American people would have been aware of the capture of German scientists to further the US and Soviet missile programs. Technology was the main battle ground of the Cold War and the mansion, so close to it in the world of the film, resembles a post apocalyptic ruin.
The mansion is one of the most symbolic sequences in the film. When the three teens arrive they begin to mimic their parent figures. Plato becomes a servant as he is raised by a nanny. Jim and Judy become a married couple who talk about children as if they are an inconvenience much as they must feel treated as one by their parents. They even talk about drowning children “like puppies” reminding us of Plato’s crime at the beginning of the film. As they play their game they are unaware of the danger lurking right outside. This could be the feeling of the public looking the other way in the light of a looming war with The USSR.  In short time the dilapidated building becomes a battle ground. In the ending action of the play Jim must dodge bullets, make peace, and watch that peace be once again shattered by an un-understanding world. 
Dean’s character of Jim may be seen as the most straight forward. James Dean lost his mother and had a falling out with his father making him like the Jim character (Sanjuro). Jim is looking for his father to stand up to his mother. “If only he had the guts to knock her cold just once. Then maybe she would be happy.” He feels that his family can’t be happy without a strong father figure and his mother’s verbal jabbing emasculates the man.
We can see the emasculated side of Jim’s father when Jim comes home from the chickie run to find his father preparing a meal for his mother wearing a woman’s frilly apron. Jim’s father is now literally wearing his wife’s clothes. Unless Jim’s mother is a working woman, unlikely in the fifties, she should normally do the cooking in the home. Jim’s father is now as much mother as father in this scene. Jim even comments that he thought his father was his mother and why not he is wearing her dress?

Jim becomes the father figure in this family when his own father is wearing that apron. When Jim’s father drop the tray of food he says he needs to clean it up before his wife sees it placing his wife at the center of his concern. Jim tells him to let his mother see the mess asking him to abandon his fear of her. Other instances of this are Jim telling his father he wants a straight answer out of him throughout the film. Jim’s father, unable to act on his own, refuses time and time again failing Jim as he has done time and time over.

One of the most important moments between Jim’s family is the fight over weather Jim should go to the police over the death of Buzz. During this scene Jim grabs his father and shoves him towards his mother. Jim has already proved that he is no cowered in the world of the film by participating in the game of chicken. He has now set the example for his father to follow and is asking his father to be the man that he has proven himself to be. Jim does get his wish in some form at the end when his father runs to the body of Plato thinking it is Jim. This transformation is incomplete and sad, but whatever Jim’s father is Jim has come to grips with this finding the family he wanted in Judy.

The sad world of the film is one that permits no reliance on the family or the state to resolve problems. When any of the characters looked to authority they found only empty promises and gestures.  This ending idea is that resolution will come only when the characters find in themselves what they need and stop looking for it in family and authority.


Eisenschitz, Bernard. Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. London: Faber, 1993.

Hermes, Jr., Walter. Truce Tent and Fighting Front. WASHINGTON, D. C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 2002. 2, 6-9.

Rebel without a Cause, Dir. Nicholas Ray, Warner Brothers, 1955

Sanjuro, Erik A. Reviw of Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2006.

Wood, Chris. Finding the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Rebel Without a Cause. The Canadian Journal Of Irish Studies, Spring 2000