(A very conservative Christian reviews Rebel without a Cause, ignores all the gay subtext, and thinks it is an ode to tradition. Some choice selections from his review.)
At the station, Jim’s parents arrive and the first theme of the family comes into focus with the presentation of a mother who overly protects and a father who wants to be little more than a pal. The proper order of the household is thereby reversed, and, as the story unfolds, it’s clear that Jim grasps its effects. Fathers who are not authorities and bulwarks of strength produce wayward kids, though, notably, kids in search of the fathers they don’t have, as mirrored in the other characters of Jim’s age whom he slowly gets to know: Judy (Natalie Wood) who desperately wants her father to love and protect her, and Plato (Sal Mineo) who sees Jim as the father he has never known. Left to themselves for a brief time in a deserted mansion, the three fall into the roles of the father (Jim), mother (Judy), and son (Plato), which they yearn to see in their own fractured homes.
The second theme emerges in a high school field trip to a planetarium, where the students view an “educational” film about the beginning and ultimate annihilation of life on planet earth, or, as we might now say, the gospel according to Carl Sagan. As the students sit in the dark, the planetarium director coolly narrates the inevitable fate that awaits them all in a world “destroyed as we began in a burst of gas and fire.”
It’s a wonder he didn’t add, “Have a nice day.”
The title of what has become his most famous film may appear an appropriate epitaph for the life Dean led, but the film itself should banish the misconception, even as it teaches a few lessons that, sadly, still need to be inwardly digested by a society that has tenaciously resisted them. That’s another way of saying that James Dean was a rebel with a cause that needs to be ours.