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Analysis of Rebel Without a Cause and the Cold War

By Rory Colburn, VI Form

Analysis of Rebel Without a Cause and the Cold War

The 1950’s was an era of extremism marked by xenophobia, misogyny, and ageism. The population was warped and manipulated by yellow journalism and a few outspoken individuals, who urged America towards conformity. These stories and people preached the external dangers of foreign influence, especially concerning Communism, and the internal dangers, concerning teenage rebellion, and subversive women. This ideology was captured by Hollywood in the film Rebel Without a Cause, which features scenes, characters, and compositions that address these concerns, sometimes using metaphor or allegory.

America’s population was terrified by the Cold War with Russia. Joseph McCarthy was the primary purveyor of “atomic anxiety,” which bolstered America’s fear of major Communist nations, such as Russia and China. Another major concern for Americans, in this era, was the rise in teenage delinquency. Americans actually placed this concern above that of nuclear testing or racial tensions and often placed the blame for delinquency on inadequacies within the domestic setting. This ideology, concerning domestic inadequacies, lead to another extremist opinion that was emphasized in the 1950’s. This was the marginalization of women, especially mothers, as the source of America’s domestic issues. “Delinquency and communism were symbolic of a genuine concern about social disintegration” and some misogynists were convinced that America was “deep in a predicted nightmare… and mom sits on it decaying throne”(Cycle of Outrage 76)(Generation of Vipers 196).

The film creates metaphors in key scenes that indirectly express concern for nuclear fallout. The most prominent of these are set on the school trip to the Planetarium. Here the viewers both in the Planetarium and those watching the film are presented with large explosive noises and visuals that detail the end of the universe. This is a very clear metaphor for the potential effects of a nuclear war and is accurately is portraying the atomic anxiety that gripped America in the 1950’s. In the very next Jim the protagonist, and Buzz the, antagonist, get into a knife fight on the edge of a cliff. They only make small jabs at each other, which is dangerous, but not drastic. This is a metaphor for the relationship between America and Soviet Russia. The mercurial nature of teenagers is being used to describe tensions between these two nations and the ideologies they prescribe to respectively.

There is also a very clear and outright message to this film, wdeals with teenage delinquency and its source in the unstable home. The main characters, Jim, Judy, and Plato, all have had trouble with the law and are considered delinquents to that era’s standards. The movie focuses a lot of the blame for the bad behavior on bad parenting. Plato’s parents are gone, so this lack of support in the home led to psychopathic tendencies. Trudy has an abusive father, which leads her to break curfew and run away. Finally, Jim struggles to understand his role as a man because he views his father as inadequate in this aspect. This leads to his public intoxication and participation in the chicken test, as he struggles to understand manhood. Jim’s relationship with his parents is a source of his misbehavior, however, it is also an interesting look at gender roles in the 1950’s.

Certain outspoken individuals, such as Philip Wylie, expressed their concern about the detrimental effect women were putting on society. Rebel Without a Cause voices some of these in a less extreme, but still apparent manner. The movie portrays Jim’s mother as the decision maker, while the father caters to her whims. The dad, who one would assume is the patriarch of the family, is emasculated in many scenes. Once Jim assumes his mother is dressed in her apron and calls up to her, but he finds his father instead. The father also often failed to voice an opinion and to argue against his wife’s opinion. “Mom still commands. Moms more in charge than ever”(Generation of Vipers 196). Jim, for these reasons, struggles to understand his role as a male, and the movie cites these issues as the source of delinquency.

Rebel Without a Cause also wants the viewer to see the benefit of a positive domestic setting because it has displayed such negative image of American families. It does this by creating a familial relationship between Jim, Judy. This film uses these characters and allegory to renaissance art to create stability. The earliest reference is the painting “Arnolfini Wedding” by Van Eyck in 1434. This painting epitomizes the loyalty between a couple with color, setting, and composition. The outreached hands and the dog in the foreground represent the allegiance between the couple. The red in the background is indicative of emotional connection, and the couple is placed in a bedroom, which is a very intimate setting. The movie captures this moment in the costumes of the Judy and Jim, when they first meet. It establishes an innate trust between the characters, which will develop into a more intimate one. Later in the story, another composition between Judy and Jim is created in the image of the “Pieta” by Michelangelo. In the “Pieta” Mary is holding Jesus, who is already dead. There is tenderness in this connection that is shown both in Mary’s youthful visage, and Jesus’ weathered complexion. It is a portrayal of a mother, who is not a source of evil, but instead, a caring and stable individual. In the movie, Jim lies in the position of Jesus on Judy’s lap. In the movie, Jim and Judy need stability within their families. It is also a comforting concept to understand that everyone suffers, even God.

Rebel Without a Cause is a commentary on the extremism that manifested in the 1950’s. It portrays America’s concerns about women, the communist threat, and teenage delinquency. Americans in the 1950’s believed in normalizing themselves to avoid the suspicion of others. This movie captures these fears, concerns, and ideologies and creates a story that eventually leads to conformity and a safe domestic setting between Jim and Judy. Conformity, in the case of Jim and Judy’s relationship, arose out of the chaos as the solution to many of many of these concerns. The movie successfully aligns itself with American ideology in the 1950’s, by using certain references to artistic compositions.

Rory Colburn is a VI Former from Boston. His favorite classes are history and Latin, IMG_1802and he plays squash and golf.


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