[As his 16th birthday approaches, my younger son has begun the driving lessons that will soon mean I have two youthful drivers in the family. To help me deal with that stunning reflection of the passage of time, this week I’ll blog about a handful of American car histories and cars. Share your thoughts on all things American cars for a crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On a few reasons why the film’s famous “chicken run” scene is so significant.
Given how iconic he was and remains in the American imagination—despite, or perhaps in part because of, his tragically brief life—it’s a bit surprising that I’ve apparently only mentioned James Dean once before on the blog, as part of my 2019 series on blue jeans. But it makes sense that he would make his second appearance in a series on cars—just as he came to be closely associated with those iconic blue jeans, so too did Dean’s death in a September 1955 highway accident forever cement the link between the Hollywood heartthrob and automobiles. Since Rebel Without a Cause (1955) hadn’t yet been released when Dean died and would open in theaters less than a month after his passing, it likewise stands to reason that that dramatic film would become closely associated with Dean’s life and death. And as that hyperlinked clip illustrates, Dean’s character Jim Stark is similarly closely connected throughout the film to “his car.”
All of those factors come together to make the film’s centerpiece scene, the dramatic “chicken run” duel between Stark and teenage gang leader Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen), even more of a standout than it would likely always have been. The scene’s automotive action might seem pretty tame for a 2023 audience used to over the top action like in the Fast and Furious films about which I’ll write in Friday’s post, but in many ways the opposite is true: this scene and others like it were the inspiration for that evolving genre of car action, and of course in 1955 they had virtually no special effects and so what you see on screen was to a significant extent what was happening during filming. Of course Allen himself did not actually go over a cliff in his car like the character does, but it certainly appears that a car made the plunge—and again, given how soon after Dean’s car crash the film was released, the fact that this centerpiece scene illustrates the fatal dangers associated with cars only amplifies that set of audience automotive associations.
Those contexts connected to both Dean and the film’s specific cultural moment are certainly part of what made the chicken run scene a focus when the film was released. But while they, like Dean, undoubtedly remain in our collective consciousness, I don’t think they’d be enough on their own terms to have caused this specific scene to endure as much as it has (far more so than the film as a whole, I’d argue). Instead, I’d say this scene captured a fundamental combination at the heart of the car mythos: the interconnections of manhood and violence, teenage community and romance, the potential of accident and death, and the sense of freedom and independence that cars have long offered all of us (and young people most of all). I’ve written before about how the one aspect of Bruce Springsteen’s discography that doesn’t quite hit me is his obsession with cars—that remains true, but I sure understand how and why that passion connects for so many, interweaves with our identities on so many levels, and so does this film and its central car scene.
Next CarStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Car histories or stories you’d highlight?