James Dean has been immortalized as a Hollywood icon because the instant he hit his peak, he died in a car crash. If you want to see an icon who’s been put in paintings with Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and The Three Stooges, Rebel Without a Cause is pretty much your only option.
A troubled youth named Jim (Dean) moves into a new town where he makes new friends and enemies. The film follows a 24-hour period in which he’s challenged to act like a man, an adult, a friend, and many other things he doesn’t know how to be.
IS IT ANY GOOD?
Yes, quite. Dean gives a stellar performance, so you see why people were excited to watch his career rise, and horrified to see it end so abruptly, much like Heath Ledger after playing The Joker. I believe this is one of the earliest “troubled teen” movies. Many before showed youths as misunderstood, but this was one of the first to show that there was a genuine problem going on. 3.5/5 stars.
The thing that hit me the most about this movie wasn’t just Dean’s performance, but the impeccable drive to “be a man” and the age-old question “What does that mean?”
Jim doesn’t like being at home because his father is too buddy-buddy, not much of a model or mentor, which Jim needs. His dad is constantly bullied by the women in his life and won’t stand up for himself.
Thus, Jim searches for manliness elsewhere. He’s enraged when people call him a chicken which gets him into a knife fight and even an ironic game of road chicken, dangerous stunts to prove he’s not a coward, like his father, and therefore a man.
However, this macho persona doesn’t work either. His antics get him in trouble with thugs from school and result in a character’s death. Also, his friend Judy (Natalie Wood) has a father who’s so macho he doesn’t want to show affection to his daughter, but lets his son play with machine gun toys at the table.
So none of the main teens know how to be grown-ups or what to expect from a man. They end up figuring it out themselves, but it’s amazing how this trend encapsulated the struggle of so many boys.
Too many youths don’t know what a man is, so they go by the stereotypes: bullies, alpha-males, and drunks. Today, the sterotypes have evolved to include the black-clad recluse, rock/rap stars, and homosexual caricatures. Then these “men” go on to have children of their own and perpetuate the confusion. How can they teach their sons what they don’t know?
On top of that, there’s the not-so-subtle insinuation that masculinity is “wrong” somehow. Men on TV are often dopes, jarheads, perverts, and alcoholics. Hardly inspirational. Then, there’s the real-life man-bashers.
Just yesterday, I had a woman tell me to my face that all men–and men alone–are potential mass-murderers because of their testosterone. How is a man supposed to grow in such a hostile and uncertain environment?
So it’s difficult for a boy to know how to become a good man, a real man. In my own life, I’ve seen teens who became militant jarheads, stoic statues, and feathery pushovers because that’s what their fathers were. I honestly wondered if I was gay for a time simply because I wasn’t like other boys. I didn’t figure out what masculinity really was until I was twenty-four, far too long, and many still aren’t there.
So what’s the answer? I think Rebel Without a Cause had the right idea: masculinity is a balance, not an extreme. It’s boldness, but not recklessness. It’s heroism without pomp. It’s adventure without neglecting those who need you. It’s inspiration, not demand. It’s being good, not being “nice.” It’s honor, not approval.
By the by, I’m talking about what a man is, not what a woman isn’t.
Men are defined by strength–and sterotyped by their abuse or surrender thereof. A man’s strength is not meant to dominate or destroy. It’s there to protect, to encourage. A man needs his strength so that he can endure the trials of the world and so he can carry the weak and wounded on his back.
More importantly, a man needs incredible amounts of strength so that he can give more of it away. He must give that strength to his friends when they don’t have any. He must give it to his children so they can stand on their own. He must give it to his wife without being threatened by her power. He must give it to the oppressed, the broken-down, and those without voices.
It’s a tall order, isn’t it? How can a man possibly have enough strength for himself and still have enough to give to others? I’ll tell you. You won’t like it, but I’ll tell you anyway. You can’t draw infinite resources from a finite source. You must instead draw from an infinite source. This kind of strength must be drawn from God himself, who used his limitless strength to create, to empower his creations, and to surrender it all in death.
Told you that you wouldn’t like it. There’s this unspoken rule that a man must become a man on his own, without God or man to help him. This is utter foolishness. Why? Watch Rebel Without a Cause and you’ll find out what happens to boys who walk this cruel world alone.
NEXT: 1956–The Rainmaker