Cal Trask (James Dean) tries to win the love of his father Adam (Raymond Massey) by borrowing money from his estranged prostitue mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) and investing in bean futures. He knows that World War 1 is imminent, and that this will drive up demand for beans. He hopes to make a lot of money and make his father proud.
War comes, the price of beans skyrockets, and Cal makes a lot of money. But when he tries to give the money to his father, his father is anything but proud- he is horrified that his son is profiteering from war. He compares Cal negatively to his more virtuous brother Aron (Richard Davalos).
Heartbroken by his father's rejection, tIred of always being viewed as the "bad " son and being compared to his "good" brother, Cal takes Aron to the local whorehouse and shows Aron that their mother Kate is alive and well. Aron is shocked- he had always believed that his mother was a virtuous woman who had died young, because that is what their father Adam had always told the boys. Aron's whole world and his whole sense of right and wrong are shattered.
Aron gets drunk, and enlists in the Army. The sheriff (Burl Ives) calls Adam to the depot, where Aron has boarded a train which will be taking him to be shipped off to war. Adam sees a belligerent, crazed Aron in the train. Aron smashes the train window with his head, and laughs hysterically at Adam as the train pulls away. Adam is crushed, and suffers a paralyzing stroke on the depot platform. Adam is taken home and put to bed, where he is tended by a cold, thoughtless nurse, who seems uninterested in her job- she spends her time looking for coffee and magazines to read.
Everyone blames Cal for what has happened. The sheriff, quoting a Bible passage, tells Cal to go away, East of Eden, as Cain did, and never come back.
Only Aron's former girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), who now loves Cal, still sees any hope. At Adam's bedside, she tells the immobile Adam that Cal desperately needs some sign that Adam still loves him. Adam doesn't move or speak, but her words seem to move Adam's heart. Cal comes to see his father, and tries to make amends. The nurse bursts in, and obliviously asks where the coffee is stored. Cal furiously orders the nurse to leave. This makes Adam smile, just a little bit. Adam whispers softly to Cal that he hates the nurse- he wants Cal to take care of him.
With tears of happiness and relief, Cal agrees! He fires the nurse, and begins to attend to his father. Adam may never recover, and he may not live long, but he has shown that he loves Cal, and knows that Cal loves him.
Thanks John L!