Based on John Steinbeck’s novel, a rebellious young man discovers his mother is a madam, and he tries to please his father while competing against his good brother.
In 1917 just outside of Monterrey, California a woman dressed in black makes a deposit at the bank and walks through town, followed by Cal Trask (James Dean). Kate (Jo Van Fleet) walks in the house and asks her servant Anne (Lois Smith) who is the kid following her. He throws a rock, and she sends Joe out to get rid of him. Cal wants to talk with her, but he leaves.
Aron Trask (Richard Davalos) and Abra (Julie Harris) are walking together and say that Cal will get it for being out all night. His father Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) tells Will Hamilton (Albert Dekker) his son was gone all night but said nothing. Adam tells Will that they found a frozen mastadon that still was fresh meat. He says the biggest market for vegetables is in New York city, where they cannot raise them. Cal says fortunes will be made in the war in beans and corn. Adam says he is not interested in making a profit. Adam shouts at Cal to put out his cigarette. Aron and Abra say they will freeze vegetables, and she asks him when they are going to get married. He says not for a while, but they kiss. Cal in the ice hears them. Aron says that his mother died after he and Cal were born. Abra says that Cal can see them. Cal pushes blocks of ice down the ramp.
Adam prays and asks Cal why he pushed the ice down. Adam has Cal read from the Bible, and gets upset when he persists in reading the numbers too. Cal admits he is bad, but Adam says he has a choice. Cal asks if his mother is dead because he heard she is alive. Adam says he wanted to save him and Aron pain. Cal asks if she was bad. Adam says she lacks conscience or something and was full of hate. He does not want Cal to tell Aron that she did not die. Adam says she had lovely hands but was afraid she would get arthritis like her mother. Adam says he does not know where she is, and Cal goes out. Mr. Gustave Albrecht (Harold Gordon) says Cal is high strung and goes in to play chess with Adam.
Cal rides on top of a train and goes to a saloon for a beer. Anne tells Cal to get out of there. He asks if she knows Kate, and she says it is Kate’s place. He asks her where Kate is, and she shows him the door to her room. Cal quietly walks in and kneels before Kate, who is asleep in a chair. She wakes and calls Joe to get him out of there. Cal says he wants to talk to her.
Cal asks Sam the Sheriff (Burl Ives) if there is a law against trying to talk to one’s mother. Sam says he is the law and asks if Adam knows he is there. Sam shows him a picture of his parents on their wedding day. Cal says he is no good because she is no good. Sam takes Cal home in his car. Cal asks how his dad met her and why he married her. Sam says she was pretty. Sam admits she shot Adam, who has much conscience. Cal looks in the window and sees Adam working on his idea of freezing lettuce.
Cal helps build a chute for the lettuce. Some men tell Adam that someone swiped their coal chute. Adam tells Cal he is very ingenious. Abra tells Cal she brought Aron’s lunch. She tells Cal that she threw away a ring worth $3,000. She was afraid her father did not love her. Her mother died when she was thirteen. When her father got married again, she hated everybody. Abra says she is grown up and understands kids. She says she forgave him and that made her feel better. Now she gets along with her father, but she still hates his wife.
Aron arrives and tells Adam that is a coal chute. Adam scolds Cal and orders him to take it back. Adam tells Aron to make a wooden chute. Cal tells workers that it is going to work. The train leaves. Will shows Adam an automobile and has Roy explain to him how to operate it. Roy gets it started. They find water running out of the railroad cars, and Adam realizes he failed.
In a large room men do calisthenics, and Cal is told not to interfere. Cal tells Mr. Hamilton he has to make money. He wants to go into beans to make money for his father. Hamilton says he has to have money to make money. If he has $5,000, they can contract bean acreage.
Cal sees Kate on a dirt road, and she asks about his brother Aron. Cal says he is more like her than Aron. She asks how Adam is, but he won’t say. She asks Cal what he wants, and he asks for $5,000. She invites him to come in and sit down. She asks what he is going to do after he finishes school in Salinas. He says he wants to go into the bean business and pay his father for his loss in lettuce. She says he has nerve coming to her. He offers to pay her interest. She asks if it is blackmail because he could inform his father and brother about her. He asks why she shot his father. She says he tried to stop her and own her. He read the Bible at her, and she sees Cal smile. She says they are alike, but his father has purity. She writes a check and asks for Will Hamilton to come see her. She seals it in an envelope and tells Cal to give it to him. She tells Cal to get out, and he leaves.
A newspaper announces war with Germany, and Salinas has a parade for the soldiers. Cal gives Abra some licorice. Aron tells Abra he will not go because he does not believe it is right. Someone breaks the window of Gustave Albrecht because they hate the Germans. Adam tells Cal he is working hard at the draft board. Cal tells his father not to worry about money.
Cal is happy about the bean field, and he goes out with a girl to a carnival. Cal rescues Abra from a soldier. He steals some taffy, and they have fun. The girl asks Cal where he has been hiding. An officer is making a speech about the war. Abra asks Cal if she is losing Aron. She asks Cal if he is bad with girls. She says she is not good enough for Aron. She thinks Aron is in love with what he thinks is good, not her. She thanks Cal for taking care of her, and he kisses her. She says she loves Aron and cries. Cal sees Aron below, and he climbs down from the ferris wheel. Aron defends the German Albrecht, who reads a letter that a woman’s son was killed in action. He says he is sorry, but a brawl begins. The Sheriff appears, and they all stop. Sam asks them to go home, and he tells Mrs. Albrecht that her place will be fixed up. Aron asks Abra where she was, and he blames Cal for starting slugging. Cal runs over to a bar for a beer, and Abra comes in. He asks for a drink, and she tells him not to get drunk. Aron comes in for Abra, and they leave. Cal asks Will for the money. Cal climbs up to Abra’s window and knocks. They talk, and he says he is going to give Adam the money. He asks why he hit Aron.
Cal and Abra have decorated the house for Adam’s birthday. Cal is wearing a suit and tie, and she says he looks wonderful. Adam tells a man that he cannot excuse his son from the draft. Adam is surprised and happy. Cal gives him a present, and Aron says he and Abra are engaged. Adam says that is better than anything. He unwraps Cal’s gift and sees it is money. Cal says he made it on beans. Adam tells him to give it back to the farmers. He says he cannot profit from the war and will not take it. He asks Cal for something honest. Cal cries, embraces his father, and staggers out. Abra tries to console him, and Aron calls her. Aron tells Cal not to touch her again and stay away from her. Cal tells Aron he wants to show him something.
Cal takes Aron to Kate’s room and introduces him to his mother. Cal says Aron is everything that is good. Cal pushes him into her and closes the door. At home Adam asks Cal where Aron is. Cal says he is not his brother’s keeper. Cal says he understands why she left Adam. He did not love her or him. Cal says she runs a house in Monterey. Cal tells Adam he tried to buy his love, but now he does not want it. Abra tells Cal she is afraid of him. Sam asks Cal what happened with Aron, who is going to enlist. They go to the train station. Aron is drunk in the train, sees Adam, and breaks the train window. The train leaves.
Later a doctor tells Cal and Abra that Adam is paralyzed and helpless. Sam quotes the Bible about Cain killing Abel and going east of Eden. He tells Cal to go away. Cal and Abra see Adam in bed staring at the ceiling. Cal apologizes for having done an awful thing. Cal goes out, and Abra asks Adam if he can hear her. She says he can hear but not show it. She says it is awful not to be loved. She says he never loved Cal or asked for his love. She asks him to release Cal. She pleads with Cal to talk to him. Cal goes in and talks to Adam. Cal shouts at the nurse to get out. Adam manages to ask Cal to get him another nurse. Adam whispers in Cal’s ear. Abra asks Cal what he said. Cal says he asked him to stay and take care of him. Cal kisses Abra. Cal takes a chair and sits next to his father.
This allegorical drama explores why Cal feels rejected and how he tries to win back his father’s love. Adam is idealistic and suspects selfish motives. Aron hates war; but after his illusions are shattered by his pragmatic mother, he is disillusioned, gets drunk, and ironically enlists. Cal is finally able to persuade his father and Abra that his intentions are good despite his not conforming.