“I believe, I believe that in America, I believe I will be washed clean.”

America America
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Stathis Giallelis, Lou Antonio, John Marley, Paul Mann, and Linda Marsh
Warner Bros., 1963, 168 minutes

After directing fifteen films based on the ideas and scripts of others, Kazan worked up the nerve to write the screenplay of “America America” by himself. The movie loosely chronicles the immigration of Kazan’s uncle to America.

Plot

With the Armenian and Greek minorities facing increasing intolerance and persecution in 1890’s Turkey, the Greek Topouzoglou family sends their eldest son, Stavros (Giallelis), from their small village to Constantinople in the hope that he can establish the family in the relatively safer environs of the city. But Stavros secretly dreams of immigrating to the mythical America, with its promises of security and prosperity. Along the journey to the city, the naive and trusting Stavros is robbed of his family’s cherished possessions by a comical Turkish rascal (Antonio) and arrives at his cousin’s rug store with only the clothes on his back. Stavros balks at his cousin’s scheme to marry a wealthy merchant’s unattractive daughter and begins working as a lowly hamal (porter) to buy passage to America. After months of back-breaking toil, he is robbed of his savings by a prostitute. Stavros associates with a group of anarchists and is nearly killed in a government ambush. He returns half-dead to his cousin and disingenuously agrees to marry the daughter of merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Mann). Stavros has feelings for the plain Thomna (Marsh) and is tempted by the comforts of domesticity, but won’t be swayed from his goal. The middle-aged wife of one Sinnikoglou’s wealthy customers takes a shine to young Stavros and arranges for his ocean passage to America as her traveling “companion.” When her husband learns he’s been betrayed, he tries to have the young Greek returned to Turkey, but Stavros takes the identity of a deathly-sick Armenian friend (Gregory Rozakis), who voluntarily jumps overboard so that Stavros may realize his dream. Stavros arrives at Ellis Island and kneels down to kiss American soil. He shines shoes in New York City with a passion, saving his hard-earned coins in order to eventually bring his family to America.

AAA
Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) is tempted by Thomna (Linda Marsh) and her family to remain in Constantinople and enjoy the pleasures of domesticity

Comments

Kazan based his novel, “America America” (1962), and the subsequent film adaptation on the journey of his uncle, Joe Kazan, who had a cameo in one of Kazan’s early films; “Boomerang.” Kazan moved the filming to Greece because of Turkish censorship. The breathtaking black and white cinematography was done by the legendary Haskell Wexler. Newcomer Giallelis’ performance at times borders on the amateurish and his broken English is occasionally undecipherable, but his facial expressions are wonderfully dramatic. The 22-year-old Greek actor had to learn English for this role. Kazan employed a large number of weathered native non-actor extras who sharply contrast with the professionals of Kazan’s Actor’s Studio. Linda Marsh breaks your heart as the rejected bride-to-be and deserved an Oscar nomination. Paul Mann is outstanding as the domineering but big-hearted future-father-in-law. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

“America America” was Kazan’s favorite film. It’s extremely long at almost three hours, but I would have a hard time deciding which scenes to cut. This is a wonderful movie, an epic testament to the courage and determination of our immigrant ancestors who sought the freedoms of America. They pined for an America where they heard the streets were literally paved with gold and where they would be “redeemed” and washed clean (of the injustices of the old homeland), as Stavros says in the film. However, after they arrived in America, many immigrants found the conditions in the late 19th and early 20th-century urban sweat shops and tenements to be as oppressive as conditions in the “old country.”

Warner Bros. finally released this film on DVD in 2011. Film historian, Foster Hirsch, provides an informative and infectiously enthusiastic commentary. Kazan would go on to complete the trilogy of Stavros’ epic tale with the novels, “The Anatolian” (1982), and “Beyond the Agean” (1994). Spoiler alert: In his later years, Stavros becomes disillusioned with America and yearns for the old homeland.

See one of the trailers for “America America” here.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Kazan directed “America America” when he was 54 years old. Once the celebrated “golden boy” of Hollywood and Broadway, the despised, friendly-witness of the 1952 House Un-American Activities Committee would direct only three more films. Like “America America,” they would all be commercial failures. Kazan always felt uncomfortable as a Greek immigrant outsider in Hollywood’s illusory world of homogenized glamour. With this movie, Kazan embraced his ethnic roots and, in a certain sense, tried to come to terms with his strained relationship with his deceased father.

Everyone who doesn’t know the Lord has a spiritual void they seek to fill. When I walked away from the Lord for many years, I tried to fill the vacuum by reading many books about my ethnic heritage. It became an obsession. Millions of Americans log into Ancestry.com every day to try to determine exactly who they are in this rootless society. In the end, it doesn’t satisfy. The only Rock and sure foundation is the Lord, Jesus Christ. If He is not your personal Savior, you don’t have anything.

5 thoughts on ““I believe, I believe that in America, I believe I will be washed clean.”

  1. Man this sounds very interesting. This makes me think of my father in Asia under the communists and his eventual escape but still wanting to go to America which he heard about he decided to make the venture alone…I’m so thankful for my dad’s trip to America. This story sounds like something that I would enjoy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I highly recommend it. It’s one of those extremely good films that no one’s heard of. Kazan also included many autobiographical elements dealing with compromising, swallowing pride, and “making deals with the devil” to achieve goals. Great epic and like all of Kazan’s films, very insightful into human behavior/sinfulness.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “very insightful into human behavior/sinfulness.” Sadly sometimes non-Christians who have profoundly thought about human nature do a better job representing it on film than some shallow sermons in the pulpit in today’s Evangelical climate. The sinfulness of human nature and also the fallen human condition is something airbrushed in shallow pop Christianity but your description of Kazan is the same I feel for Stanley Kurbrick and the director behind the GodFather (though their violence is over the top but I think an analysis of what they are doing with their film shows a thoughtful consideration of society and the border of uncivilized with violence, rationality and irrationality, etc.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Good points about Kubrick and Coppola, both big admirers of Kazan.

        Kazan tried to show that there were no “good” and “bad” people, but that everyone was a combination of ambivalent ideas and feelings. Some saw several of Kazan’s films as veiled attacks on (c)hristianity, and there is some merit to that. But Kazan’s view of (c)hristianity was according to the institutional Orthodox and Catholic (he attended Catholic grade school) systems he was raised up in. He didn’t know the Biblical perspective that all people are bad and all need the Savior.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Our Judeo-Christian Nation United States of America needs Jesus-Yeshua Christ more than ever NOW!!

    In fact: Jesus-Yeshua Christ said: “I AM Come to seek those who are lost.”!!

    God Bless all my Sisters and Brothers in Christ Jesus-Yeshua and Your Families and Friends!!

    Our ONE True GOD’S LOVE 💕💜 is ETERNAL THROUGH HIS SON Jesus-Yeshua Christ for Today and Everyday Forevermore!!

    Love 💕 Always and Shalom ( Peace ), YSIC \o/

    Kristi Ann

    Liked by 2 people

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