The story is set in 1917, before and during American involvement in World War I, in the central California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas. Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) are the sons of a modestly successful farmer and wartime draft board chairman named Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Cal is moody and embittered by his belief that his father favors Aron. Although both Cal and Aron had long been led to believe that their mother had died "and gone to heaven", the opening scene reveals that Cal has apparently learned that his mother is still alive, owning and running a successful brothel in nearby Monterey.
After the father's idealistic plans for a long-haul vegetable shipping business venture end in a loss of thousands of dollars, Cal decides to enter the bean-growing business, as a way of recouping the money his father lost in the vegetable shipping venture. He is advised that if the United States enters the war, the price of beans will skyrocket. Cal hopes this will finally earn him the love and respect of his father. He goes to his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) to ask to borrow the capital he needs. She reluctantly lends him $5,000.
Meanwhile, Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) gradually finds herself attracted to Cal, who seems to reciprocate her feelings.
Cal's business goes well, and he decides to give the money to Adam at a surprise birthday party for his father, which he and Abra plan together. As the party gets underway, Aron suddenly announces that he and Abra are engaged. While Adam is openly pleased with the news, both Abra and Cal are uneasy, having recently discovered a mutual attraction for one another is emerging, despite their suppressed feelings. Cal makes a surprise birthday present of the money to his father; however, Adam refuses to accept any money earned by what he regards as war profiteering. Cal does not understand, and sees his father's refusal to accept the gift as just another emotional rejection. When the distraught Cal leaves the room, Abra goes after him, to console him as best she can. Aron follows and orders Cal to stay away from her.
In anger, Cal takes his brother to see their mother, then returns home alone. When his father demands to know where his brother is, Cal tells him. The shock drives Aron to get drunk and board a troop train to enlist in the army. When Sam (Burl Ives), the sheriff, brings the news, Adam rushes to the train station in an attempt to dissuade him, but can only watch helplessly as his son steams away from him with his head out the rail car window, maniacally laughing at him.
Adam suffers a stroke because of the incredible strain, leaving him paralyzed and unable to communicate. Cal and Abra enter the bedroom. Cal tries to talk to him, but gets no response and leaves the bedroom leaving Abra alone with Adam. Abra pleads with Adam to show Cal some affection before it is too late. She persuades Cal to go back into the room. When Cal makes his last bid for acceptance before leaving town, his father manages to speak. He tells his son to get rid of the annoying nurse and not to get anyone else, but to stay and take care of him himself. The film ends with Cal and Abra sitting by Adam's bedside.
East of Eden is a 1955 film, directed by Elia Kazan, and loosely based on the second half of the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. It is about a wayward young man who, while seeking his own identity, vies for the affection of his deeply religious father against his favored brother, thus retelling the story of Cain and Abel.
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Rated PG for thematic elements and some violent content (2005 re-issue)