The talk at the supermarket checkout was all of Sam Mendes’ film 1917 (2019).  It had picked up three Oscars, just the night before.

“Why it did, I don’t know,” said one woman. “I just walked out of that film.”

“No!” I chipped in admiringly, “I thought it was awful too. We don’t need another film about English heroes and the wicked Germans –”

“But it was a bit naughty wasn’t it, that pilot shooting us after we’d saved his life?” another put in.

Trying not to stare, I managed to stutter, “But it was a film, it was made up. And it’s not helpful to make films about how bad other people are and how wonderful we are.”

“But we are, aren’t we?” she replied. 

With its appearance of a single continuous take, 1917 had been hailed as a technical triumph of visual storytelling. But I could remember another film set in that same year, one that instead of burnishing a fantasy used visual storytelling to raise questions about the director’s country and war. I turned back to Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) and to the moment in America’s history when it was made, the year of James Dean, the bad-boy hero.

East of Eden

East of Eden, in which he played Cal Trask, was James Dean’s first film. He burst through into international consciousness, shocking and fascinating by turns. Angry, awkward, in him filmgoers recognised just what they deplored in young men of their own. Yet like their own young, he could be so endearing. Such fluidity posed a challenge to fixed understanding and it was recognised well-established structures, those of the law-abiding American family, that Kazan, Dean’s director, had in his sights.  

A bare seven months after its release, however, Dean died violently in a car crash. His reckless behaviour off-screen was well known: his death seemed fated, the inevitable outcome of his own personality. That sensational end erased any distinction between the person of James Dean and the figure of the troubled Cal Trask. But even as Dean’s image and its ready interpretation as “wayward young man” became fixed and iconic, deeper understanding of the film as a whole, as a work of art, was being lost. The challenge posed by Kazan’s movie through the instigating figure of Cal was obscured. 

Kazan was daring his audience to wake up and recognise that the structures of authority underpinning the regular American family were dangerous; that all unknowingly the families in which young men were raised were shaping them for mutual violence, setting their sons up for conflict between themselves and beyond that for the all-out conflict of war. This was no aberration, proposed the movie: these families were embedded in a society which was newly committed to war as an end in itself. 

War was how the country got rich. Throughout the film war looms in the background, its drumbeat echoing repeatedly. But the words “There’s a war coming” don’t seem to be sounded in warning. Indeed, war is positively welcomed: “War’s good for business, nothing better”, booms Hamilton the successful man. In fact, East of Eden is a war movie, although no battlefield is represented, nor the physical damage to bodies and buildings. The price of conflict is represented only by report, as sons are mutilated or die far away.

The timing of Kazan’s appeal to a deeper understanding of America was not casual. Between the months of May and August 1954, while East of Eden was being shot, in the world off-screen the United States was engaged in planning how to repatriate its war dead. Choosing to name that project “Operation Glory”, as they did, was a straight denial, a mystification of suffering and loss intended to reconcile families to the state’s choice of war. When the movie was released in spring 1955 it was still less than two years since the end of the Korean War in which 33,000 American lives had been lost. The country was still counting the cost: many didn’t understand how they’d ever got involved in the first place, when Korea was so very far away. While the government chose to mystify pain and confusion the filmmakers responded with clear vision. Kazan and his writer Paul Ormond asked their audience to look again, to listen, to take stock for themselves of the world they were living in.

The America they pictured in East of Eden, the movie, might appear comfortingly familiar and even homespun. In this it was deceptively close to Steinbeck’s 1952 novel of the same name. That novel had sold enormously, received as an all-American celebration of family and country, promising a wide and receptive audience for a film adaptation. Yet the more demanding New York Times reviewer had seen the novel as a work of confusion, “a fantasia of history and myth”. In putting together the movie they wanted the filmmakers brought into sharp focus images that had remained blurred and superimposed in the fiction, images of a psychological violence built into the model of the family and images of young men, at odds with each other and with themselves, going off to war.

* * *

Rather than reproduce the historical sweep of the novel, the film is tightly set in 1917, the year when America entered World War I. Another choice firmly embeds the story of one family within the history of a small town, as it experiences the coming and effects of war. This doubled setting allows Kazan to propose a connection between the way boys are brought up at home and the readiness of Americans to be led by those in power into a war that will cost the lives of their own sons. 

The film starts by highlighting the unspoken dynamic within a family subject to a father’s unchallenged rule, where mothers are denied their voice, their sexuality is feared, and they are themselves sidelined from the upbringing of their sons. The father’s teaching is shown to create rivalry with the potential for violence between brothers. This rivalry the film then scales up via the wider community: neighbour turns against neighbour under the goad of war between nations. It is a tracing of consequences that is made entirely by nesting images of an escalating violence, one that is first engendered by a father’s patriarchal authority then set loose by those in power, the nation’s government. 

Kazan’s project is scandalous. It contradicts every myth America cherishes about itself. Yet there is nothing to disturb an audience about that familiar small-town setting as presented: it seems true to the world that they know, or rather, imagine. But in the way his scenes are chosen and shot Kazan’s cinematography is coaxing viewers to let go of their habitual take on their world and to respond instead to the subliminal force of his imagery. The shift is encouraged from the first: the very title sequences, named as an “Overture”, made up of near static shots of sea and mountain, held it seems forever, slow down and baffle habitual forms of viewing. 

It is a world defined by separation that we are invited to register. The camera lingers over the rocks that divide the sea; meanwhile the voiceover notes the mountains that divide one town from another, Salinas from Monterey. At last, with the contorted figure of the boy Cal, all in white, held at bay from a veiled woman darkly dressed, the movie’s theme of separation takes on human form. As Cal’s clenched posture already suggests, this onscreen separation is one that will cause pain. 

East of Eden

Cal has to fight to get to see this hidden woman. With a small jolt to viewers, the terms of his repeated protests link this painful distance with matters of law. “Is there any law against what he’s trying to do, following the town madam?” he objects. “Is there any law against a guy trying to see his own mother?” as he later puts it to the sheriff, the man of the law. Responding, the older man explains that there is a distinction to be made. No federal law forbids Cal from seeing his mother, that much is true. Yet in a moment comes the reminder that law is embodied not only in the sheriff’s badge of office but also in his own person as an older man. “I’m the law around here”, he pronounces conclusively. With these words there shimmers into understanding a different underlying system of law governing this world, the law laid down by older men, the law of the father. 

Of its nature cinema projects that law, making it visible. But what Kazan brings newly to light is law’s power in shaping the family. His film identifies the law of the father with an attempt to destroy the connection between mother and son.  As a son, Cal is shown distanced from his mother. Though he wants to, he doesn’t really know her. There is a reason for that. As a woman, his mother found her desire to live her own life first censored then reframed in terms of a dangerous unregulated sexuality. His mother is known to Cal only as “the town madam”.

Sons, too, are subject to an authority that oppresses and distorts. His father Adam’s attempt to force Cal’s submission takes the shape of a Bible-reading, where Cal is obliged to adopt the penitent voice of Psalm 32. In being told to start reading at the words “I acknowledge my sin unto thee” and to continue, he is urged to do more than apologise for being out all night. He is to join a community of belief and values that promises to keep him safe: “Thou art my hiding-place: thou shalt preserve me from trouble.” Close to ritual humiliation, the scene is carefully steered to avoid the semblance of attacking both Christianity and a father’s authority – though indeed it offered a critical perspective, for those with eyes to see. 

As a man, Adam Trask also suffers from a distortion imposed on him by his role as father under the law. The sheriff had described him to Cal as “the kindest man he knew”. As a father, however, in this system, Adam feels obliged to humble his son, and even to lie to him. When Cal appeals for a real exchange with Adam, using words of their own, not scripture, his father innocently reveals his own confusion. He had told his sons their mother was dead in order to “save them pain”. “Pain!” repeats Cal, outraged, incredulous, in anguish. How could his father have been so blind?

Meanwhile his brother, Aron, has “discreetly” left the scene at its opening. It does not apparently cross his mind to stay and defend his brother.  This creates the first indication of the split between these sons that the film’s title with its echo of Genesis has set us up to expect. After killing his brother, Cain went to live “east of Eden”. Yet instead of a spontaneous enmity between the brothers, this scene reveals Adam’s part in dividing them. He sees them as entirely different, claiming “I’ve always understood Aron” – who is docile and identifies with his father – but is troubled by Cal’s need to raise questions. In withholding love and approval from Cal in his resistance, while endorsing his complaisant brother, Adam will foment a hostility beyond his control.

For the viewer, Cal’s unsettling questions open up these mystified relationships, bringing clarity. Told by the sheriff that his father had adored his pretty mother, Cal had asked why then did she run away. Human sympathy gave him the answer at once: ‘He must have done something to her. Did he hurt her?’ When he gets to know his mother better he will learn how much they share: his mother had rebelled at having the Bible read at her while being kept out on the ranch away from the life in town.

* * *

“You can keep things good forever, so long as you keep them cold enough”, murmurs Adam in the kitchen as he packs his lettuces with ice. There was an early hint about cold and its effects at the start of the film, when we saw Cal hunched over, hugging himself and dragging a sweater more tightly round him as he rode the train. We’ll see how Adam’s naive attempt to master the natural life process works out commercially just as we learn what it has meant for the development of his sons.  The domestic little scene at the fridge opens the way to one of cinematic bravura. In the large commercial icehouse Adam has unwisely bought, the director finds a means to stage the absent and the unspoken.

East of Eden

Any viewer tempted to maintain their own illusions by seeing the Trasks as a perfectly healthy family under a stern father with a soft heart might be challenged watching Cal lurk in the icehouse. Hard to swallow as realism, the scene becomes satisfying once visual cues that repeat earlier frames are picked up. Spying on his brother and his girl, Cal cuts a disturbing figure. He crouches, a voyeur, peering at them from between two blocks of ice. The pose recalls that early moment when Cal crouched frozen, curled into himself like a foetus on the top of the train. At the same time the shot crucially links Cal with his mother.

East of Eden

Earlier his mother was glimpsed peering between white curtains at her son. Without words, those curtains, a trope of visual language, spoke of the female body and its sexuality. But Cal has been deprived of knowing his mother, living with her as a whole person with a will of her own and a sexual presence. That chilly absence, implied by the framing iceblocks, was intended by his father to keep the boys “good”. It has left them separated from women psychologically speaking, cramping their development and leaving them ignorant.

Instinct tells Cal that something’s missing in his understanding of how to be with women: he does not know what to do with his feeling for girls, beyond forays in the bushes with ones he can exploit: these girls often have a Mexican appearance. When he spies on his brother it is to see what he can learn. When he goes on to hurl slabs of ice down a chute, it could look like mere wanton destruction. To one those who have picked up the director’s cues, however, the act reads as the rage and frustration of a life blocked. 

If there is something stunted in Cal’s voyeurism, his brother Aron too betrays signs of arrested development. Aron’s behaviour also speaks of his mother’s absence. He blanks Abra’s sexual invitation, preferring to lay his head on her breast and to speak of her as a mother. There will be nothing in the movie to indicate that he’s moved by physical desire for Abra – possibly Kazan meant us to read him as gay. It is possession and authority over her that Aron seems to value, the guarantee of his place as a man under the law.

It is around this point, with the doomed dispatch of the lettuce, that the focus begins to widen out into the community. That situates the family dynamic within a broader world, one driven by the business of obtaining wealth. In the belief that Adam is going to make money, his friend the businessman Hamilton has had a car delivered for him to inspect. But what are we – we in the cinema – supposed to be interested in as a fascinated group lingers around that Model T?

East of Eden

As a strategy, it is not without risk. Except among today’s Model T specialists (who celebrate the car’s starring role, while complaining that the model shown was not made in that year) the sequence can strike the viewer as oddly repetitive, stalled. Furthermore, there is no further reference to that car. There does not have to be: the very presence of this Model T stands in for and embodies Progress. It is a flattering image of America, speaking of the growing prosperity which meant that by 1917, the year the film was set, almost 5 million cars had been bought and registered by Americans. By the time that scene was shot in 1955 nearly three quarters of the cars in the world were being made in America. The automotive industry itself had been responsible for accelerating the industrialisation that had made the United States the richest country in the world. 

Its starting mechanism seems just as important for the movie as the car’s speaking presence. Again and again the sequence of actions needed to start the engine is reiterated. After giving his own demonstration twice, the engineer leads spectators in a repeated chant of the sequence. According to the Model T Ford Forum the instructions were completely accurate and therefore utterly recognisable to the audience: “turn the key, set the spark and throttle and turn the carb adjustment 1/2 turn rich and crank pulling the wire in front. Then go in and advance the spark and retard the throttle and adjust richness.”1 

Those instructions may have been offered as a guarantee, proving that the picture of America offered was accurate. With an injunction to match the fascinated attention of the group round the car? Like America itself, the car is a wonder. Yet as Adam Trask gently points out, it isn’t going anywhere. Fixed, yet apparently standing for Progress, the insistent unchanging image brings everyday understanding to a halt. Meanwhile, we’ve sure been urged to observe the importance of connections, process and the moves that set a system going; as audience, we are to linger on an image of America that is familiar though seen from an angle that disturbs what we thought we knew. 

* * *

Kazan made it his task to establish a systemic connection between Adam’s mistakes as a father and an entire community’s blind impulse towards war. Adam showed a dangerous ignorance of the harm he was doing by the way he exercised power; that same folly leads the community to embrace war, denying its risk and costs. In the town parade through Salinas, a visual set-piece halfway through the film, the community is blinded by wishful thinking: it’s all great fun, floats, automobiles, John Bull and Uncle Sam arm in arm, the Kaiser with a noose round his neck. A cheering crowd mocks the new enemy: the Germans “don’t have an army”, “they’re not fighters”, “we’ll set them right in a couple of months”. 

Then smack in the middle of it, enter Cal, to cut through these fantasies, just as he had challenged his father to stop lying and tell him the truth. Cal grabs at one car as it goes past, the car of Hamilton who is now his business-partner. The young man’s voice is disruptive, it undercuts the patriotic nonsense, with a reminder of what is true about war, what really makes war desired. “Every day, in every way, we are getting richer and richer” he calls. (If you pick up an echo of Couè and his self-soothing mantra, that wouldn’t be a mistake. The film has no patience for American complacency.)

Going on to set the crisis of the story in a funfair, Kazan sharpens the contrast between what Americans would like to believe about their society and what he shows to be the case in reality. The bright lights can not disguise the grimmer reality of a world inflected by a military presence: the uniformed soldier, with his unwelcome attentions to Abra makes the night unsafe. But the fundamental threat that the film has been exposing all along is the supreme danger posed by untruth, the illusions inculcated by official lies. An English officer speaks from a raised platform preaching lies about Germany. His listeners are primed for retributive violence: a son’s death in battle has already been notified.

When they become a mob, turning on a fellow-citizen, Herr Albrecht, who had lived in the town for years, a capacity for hatred these god-fearing Americans would never have dreamed of is set loose. Yet the buried hatred, which once released can fuel the fight of neighbour against neighbour, is quickly focused and traced back to its source: it is at this moment that the murderous turn of brother against brother is set. Seeing Aron fighting to defend Herr Albrecht, Cal, who arrives to help, soon finds himself instead exchanging blows with his brother. “I don’t need your help’ growls Aron, no less damaged than Cal by their father’s divisive treatment. Hours will pass before Cal manages to recognise that what moved him as he fought his brother was hatred: “I wanted to help him”, he groans, drunk. Then “Who’m I kidding? I wanted to kill him.”

* * *

Asked about what he left to his cameraman, “Hell no” Kazan replied. “I don’t leave anything to anybody. I don’t mean to be mean about it but everything tells a story.” That pushes us to pay attention to an apparently gratuitous sequence staged during the violent funfair, the very nub of the film: Cal and Abra are shown playing with the distorted image of themselves in the line of funhouse mirrors, while a dumpy little old lady moves alongside. 

We have seen that old lady a few shots previously, when Cal, fresh from his success at the shooting range, asks her if she would like a turn with the rifle. She draws back, deprecating. Of course she wouldn’t, she implies, that’s not for her. Cal might have just been teasing yet Dean makes the words sound innocent, a spontaneous offer. Why shouldn’t a woman fancy a turn? After all, Abra turns out to have a better aim in throwing than he has. 

When this nameless woman reappears before the funhouse mirrors, for a moment her too loud laughter breaks through, or better perhaps into the narrative. On being presented with a falsified version of who they are, the young couple, already on a quest to find themselves, laugh and play along with the grotesquerie. But the uncontained outburst on the part of the old woman is in a different register. There is a hint of violence in her laughter. Kate Trask refused to live with misrepresentation but even an apparently docile woman can be shocked for a moment, when confronted by the distortion in her image.

But that is not the first time we have been forced spectators of a grown woman’s laughter. I had not paused to interrogate the initial shot, perhaps because it too left me uncomfortable, even embarrassed. Now, remembering Kazan’s insistence that every detail counts, I am drawn back to that laughter at the start of the film. As Cal grapples with his mother’s bouncer, from across the street an African-American woman is jeering. The viewer is almost personally challenged, confronted with a shape of fantasy or fear: the splayed posture and abandoned cackling violate every white notion of female decorum. We might recall that one of the first Hollywood films to address how racial separation was policed had been Kazan’s Pinky (1949). 

It is hostile, the pleasure taken by that African-American woman in the fight she is watching and marked by a curious alienation, one that does however chime with the film’s concerns. At that early moment, as the film gets underway, we are being invited to think about separation and how it is installed. As the intrusive presence of the black woman reminds us, in America that particular form of separation has been legally enforced. Racial segregation had been sustained by laws in the United States from the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. It had only just been overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education on 24 May 1954, the same month in which East of Eden began shooting. In this new film racial segregation lurks monstrous in the background, created, like the breaches made in families, by means of ideology and untruth.

That cue understood, there falls into place a brief but uneasy moment in the scene in which the town parade celebrates the declaration of war. Cal appears, again without any attempt at narrative pretext, leading a small African-American boy. His intention seems kindly if casual. But when the child’s mother – like any ideal fifties mother, hatted, nicely turned out and capable – hurries over and carries him off without a word, she is clearly intent on rescue and appears angry. She does not want Cal’s kindness, doesn’t want her child caught up in this world of careless white people, who will be only too ready to exploit him.

* * *

The movie presents a community that is in thrall to delusion and to a violence that is suppressed but ready to break out. Yet it also offers the hope of restoration once tectonic shifts in its patriarchal structure are allowed to take place: the cost to men of their power and authority is shown as ruinous. The natural processes Adam tried to stall can not be withstood since Cal, the boy who had never known his mother, has formed relationships with two women by the end of the film. 

The older one, his mother and a hard-bitten businesswoman, more than once has told him he is “A likeable kid.” In a scene set in her office she has even agreed to lend him money: that he could ask and she could agree marks a mutual respect and trust, plus a realism that is shared. When he is asked to explain how he will pay her back his plan is sound. The exchange is shaped to underscore how much they instinctively have in common. It is also a moment that speaks of the impulse to make restoration: Kate supports Cal’s attempt to make up for his father’s losses. 

The more weighty loss, the emotional damage inflicted on each other by father and son, can only be made good through Abra, the girl who has kept asking about love. The false primacy given to the father dies away, along with the invented separations and distinctions.  It is her voice, the voice of the daughter, that has been missing from the patriarchal family. She too has been on a journey, though we may not have been paying attention. As the movie draws to a close, instead of reading poetry aloud to Adam, like a good daughter, Abra finds her own voice in order to speak as witness. 

While Cal is mounting a savage attack on his father’s failures of love, the camera returns repeatedly to Abra’s face. Her efforts to comfort Cal have been guided only by instinct. Now his passionate words allow her to make a connection, to link what is strained and stunted in Cal with being starved of love. It takes daring for a daughter to assume responsibility and confront a father, as she does the dying Adam, instructing him that Cal has a right to know he is loved. Abra is tremulous and tearful with the effort. But she has left behind those naive questions about sex and love, a display of ignorance commended in a daughter of patriarchy. Instead she has chosen to know what she knows. Abra is clear now about why love matters – “Don’t ask me how I know but I do know,” she says firmly.

At the root of patriarchal teaching Kazan locates a false binary which he goes on to dismantle. In the title’s appeal to the fourth chapter of Genesis, his film seemed to promise a replay of the ancient account of hatred between brothers. Yet it constantly disturbs the division between good brother and bad, one derived by Christian teaching from a partial and selective reading of Genesis, a division we watched Adam the father install. Cal is shown as attractive but when he sees a coalshute he could use, he just steals it. Aron may be presented as smug and naïve but he tries to defend Herr Albrecht from the angry crowd. 

The ancient story is evoked only to be directly challenged, when the words of Genesis are voiced towards the end of the film.  The man of law, the sheriff speaks to accuse Cal, as they stand outside the room where Adam lies stricken. “And Cain rose up against his brother and slew him. He went away to the land of Nod, on the east of Eden”, intones the man with a badge. He prescribes separation, the old remedy: “Why don’t you go away some place?” It is not just the thoughtless cruelty of his response that strikes the hearer – if Cal did leave, it would mean abandoning his father – but its inadequacy as an explanation of events. 

The stroke which will kill Adam is not Cal’s fault. It is the consequence of vigorous brushes with reality engineered by Cal. When his brother rushes off in a drunken frenzy to a war where he might die it is not entirely Cal’s doing, though he is not uninvolved. In the aftermath of their fight, in turmoil, Cal returns to the founding secret around their mother. “I’ll show you your mother,” he shouts, dragging Aron, to hurl him headlong into their mother’s office where he crashes physically into her body. In that image the shock of his catastrophic disillusion is condensed. 

Adam had believed that he’d always understood Aron his “good” son. When he collapses at the sight of Aron smashing his head through a train window, as he leaves to enlist, it marks his inability to survive his own disillusion. Instead of separating “good” from “bad”, “right” from “wrong” the movie demonstrates that such language obscures the complexity of experience; instead it shifts the focus to the birth of hatred and the drive to kill. We are shown an America where that drive is first created then exploited by the unsuspecting agents of those in power, exploited in order to encourage a people, a whole country, to go to war.

* * *

Kazan was not alone in wanting Americans to stop congratulating themselves and pay attention to the system of interlocked forces at play in the country, nor alone in registering how they built inexorably towards war. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II, knew the costs of war and as President had made it his priority to bring an end to the conflict in Korea. Only a few years after the movie came out, Eisenhower himself would publicly identify a dynamic that was at work in America.  He named the industrial-military-political complex as a new fact of American life. In his Farewell to America on leaving office, Eisenhower spoke of the danger hidden behind technological advances.2 Specifically, he addressed the risk that political forces and the power of business interests, the drive to create wealth, could promote war. 

During World War II the US had developed its own armaments industry for the first time. Over his eight years as President Eisenhower had watched the US and its economy transformed in the service of developing it into an industry of vast proportions. When Eisenhower noted that the power of the armaments industry was already shaping everyday life in America, he stopped short of exploring those effects. But he did go behind the surface to name what he originally called “the military-industrial-political complex” before politicians persuaded him to drop the final term. 

In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower identifies an overweening power in the world that must be challenged. His revised wording, made under pressure, excludes the term “political”, addressing power and its agents more narrowly than does the film. But in naming this unauthorised dominance, with its spiritual effects on the structure of society and the accompanying dangers of such power misplaced, Eisenhower’s Farewell reads like a parallel text to Kazan’s film. 

* * *

The fact that East of Eden was read complacently, turning away from its excoriating vision, has contributed to perpetuating an injustice. A less blind reception might have left Kazan reviled for his attacks on the American way. As it was, Kazan did become notorious but it was on account of his apparent subservience to America’s machinery of power. In 1952 he had testified before HUAC, when they were aiming to root out communists working in the arts. He gave them eight or more names: for many that evidence left a stain on his reputation that time would not erase. 

In America at that period the resistance to Communism as a political system was based as much on fear as on information. Kazan’s testimony in contrast was prompted by a profound insight into the realistic threat it posed to people’s minds, an insight that was drawn from personal experience. As a young man in the hopeless 1930s he had briefly turned to the Party, only to recoil after suffering its attempt to crush out independent thought and opinion. Kazan had been sensitised: he had learned how an ideology could be used to blank out perception.

When he took a page in the New York Times of 12 April 1952 to explain his decision to testify, it was the surrender of independent thought demanded during his brief membership of the Party that was his focus:  

The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion.3 

The apparent betrayal of fellow-artists in agreeing to speak – and he did only give HUAC names they already had – weighed heavily with Kazan, but it weighed less than the duty he felt to spell out the threat posed by Communism. He was impelled to protect his fellow-Americans, yet the fact of having testified at all left him wretched and in conflict with himself.  “Miserably depressed. Can’t get my mind off it. I know I’ve done something wrong. Still convinced I would have done something worse if I’d done the opposite”, he wrote in his diary, 13 April 1952.4 

That diary entry still vibrates with a sense of threat, of doing wrong in raising a questioning voice. Today it leaves me wondering. Was it that sense of threat, just renewed, which opened Kazan’s eyes? As a young man he had been left exposed as he challenged the Party and its doctrines. Kazan made two more films before East of Eden.  But when he took on the pious myth of America in that movie, instead of democracy in practice he presented a greedy machine for making war, one managed by untruth and directed by carefully fostered illusion. In the pained figure of Cal Trask, James Dean took on the burden Kazan had once shouldered, the burden of refusing to be gulled.


About The Author

Mary Hamer taught at Cambridge before taking up fellowships at Harvard. She is a cultural historian, publishing widely on representation as it intersects with politics and history. Topics include the image of Cleopatra and the understanding of incest and abuse. Her novel Kipling & Trix, was awarded the Virginia Prize.

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