Friday, August 24, 2012

The Measure of Success

Last week, I mentioned that James Dean was one of Elvis Presley's favorite actors. Dean had major roles in only three movies, but ever since his untimely death at age 24, he - like Elvis - has persisted as a sort of cultural icon of the '50s. While he is perhaps best known as the star of the teenage battle cry, Rebel Without a Cause, today I'm looking at James Dean's final film, George Stevens' Giant, also starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

This sprawling epic was actually the highest-grossing film in Warner Bros. history until Superman came out 22 years later. (Read some of my thoughts about Superman here and here.)

Giant tells the story of Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Hudson) as he struggles to raise a family and pass on his values to the next generation. His wife, Leslie (Taylor), challenges his views on everything from gender roles to parenting styles and race relations. Over the course of several decades (and a movie only 14 minutes shorter than Gone with the Wind), his life is contrasted with farm hand Jett Rink (Dean).

In many ways, Jett Rink reminds me of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (or should I say Plainview reminds me of Jett Rink?). In the beginning, Jett seems to be almost idyllic. Although he has Dean's trademark rebellious streak, he is hard working, and aims to do the best he can for himself despite living in relative poverty. After inheriting a piece of land, his circumstances change drastically when he strikes oil. But from there on, things seem to spiral out of control. While his increased wealth opens the doors for him to do some great things, his continuous greed and lust for what he cannot have leads him to make enemies. In the end, though he seems to have reached the pinnacle of success, he has many fake friends and feels quite isolated and alone. While he may have started off on the right path, somewhere he lost his way, and the last time we see him, he's babbling in a drunken tirade.

Jett Rink, like Daniel Plainview, seems to be an illustration of 1 Timothy 6:10.

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, 
and in their eagerness to be rich 
some have wandered away from the faith 
and pierced themselves with many pains."

Jett observes Bick and his bride © 1956 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Jett Rink cooly observes Bick and his new bride
Bick Benedict, on the other hand, takes a little time to get to know, but we see before long that he has some ideas that - while they might not have seemed so odd to audiences in the '50s - may not sit well with viewers today. For instance, Bick sees himself as the ultimate authority of what is / isn't acceptable behavior from his family. When his wife does something he doesn't approve of, he believes that, "You're a Benedict now," is the only reason she needs to do as he says. And he believes firmly in  separating "man things" from "woman things". When Bick and his male friends decide one evening to discuss politics, Leslie is forbidden to even listen in on the conversation, let alone have an opinion! Likewise, Bick intends to control the future for his children - deciding that his unborn son must one day run the ranch, and later dictating who his teenage children can and cannot date.

While it is good and natural for a father to have hopes and dreams for his children, and the Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the spiritual leader of his family (Ephesians 5:21-6:4), the story illustrates the truth that life does not always go the way we plan. Leslie often defies her husband, Bick's son chooses a career path that leads him away from the ranch, and his children all date people he does not approve of. Yet, despite the frustration this causes for Bick, it also causes him to grow.

One of the strong underlying themes of the movie is the separation of the white Texans from the "wetbacks". Leslie, as an outsider who recently moved to Texas, is sympathetic to the Mexican villagers, but both Jett and Bick have a strong "us vs. them" complex. When Leslie points out the similarity between poverty-stricken Jett and the villagers, he becomes extremely offended. Later, when he is wealthy, he continues to disdain them, instructing workers in his hotel to refuse service to "those people". Bick, similarly, is very upset when he learns that his wife has been visiting the village and helping the people there. When she asks for a doctor to tend to a sick Mexican baby, Bick tries to stop her by protesting, "He's our doctor. We need him to take care of us."

Thankfully, Bick's racist attitudes slowly erode. This is partly due to his wife's persistence. It is likely helped along when the baby Leslie saved grows up and gives his life to defend the U.S. at war. Later, when Bick's son marries a Mexican girl, while there is some initial shock, Bick begins to treat her as one of the family, and his acceptance of her leads to the heroic triumph at the end of the film, when he chooses to fight for others' rights.

Describing a moment when Bick falls in the film's final fight, Leslie later encourages her husband:
"You know all that fine riding you used to do, and all that fancy roping, and all that glamor stuff you did to dazzle me? It was impressive. But none of it ever made you quite as big a man to me as you were on the floor of Sarge's hamburger joint. When you tumbled rearward and landed crashing into that pile of dirty dishes, you were at last my hero."
Leslie consoles her fallen hero © 1956 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Leslie consoles her fallen hero
Even though Bick was knocked down, he was a hero for getting knocked down for a good cause.

"If you endure when you are beaten 
for doing wrong, 
where is the credit in that? 
But if you endure when you do right 
and suffer for it, 
you have God’s approval."
- 1 Peter 2:20

 After considering all this, then, I ask you:
What is the true measure of success?

James Dean tried to answer this question once in an interview, and in a way, I'd say he's right.
"I think there is only one form of greatness for man: if a man can bridge the gap between life and death. I mean, if he can live on after he has died, then maybe he was a great man. To me, the only success - the only greatness - is immortality."
- James Dean
A lot of people try to define success by what they accumulate, but surely our film illustrates that true success is not to be found in obtaining or having wealth. The quest to obtain wealth led Jett Rink to the brink of destruction. And Bick was already wealthy when the film began, but wealth didn't bring him happiness or make him right. Both were still far from perfect, despite the money.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
- Matthew 6:19-21
If success can be measured at all, then, I think it's measured by progress. Am I learning to set aside my own preferences and prejudices to become a more godly person? Have I found something bigger than myself to stand for? Success in the eyes of God comes when we leave behind our sinful tendencies and learn to live according to his principles and love with his love. Wealth and making a name for ourselves achieves a temporary sense of immortality, but the true gift of eternal life comes when we repent of our sins and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior (1 John 5:11-13).

Like Bick, things don't have to always go our way for us to be successful: we simply have to give the Lord our all. That means we give him all our hearts by accepting Christ and rejecting the evil in the world. It means we give him all our minds by replacing wrong thoughts and lies with godly truths. It means we give him all our strength by devoting our time, money, and energy to whatever tasks he calls us to. Even if we are called to give our lives as martyrs for our faith, this is honorable, and we will succeed in receiving God's eternal reward! (Revelation 2:10)

True success is not about what we obtain, but about what we give.

How successful are you today? What more do you need to give to the Lord?

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