Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s sixteenth film, “America America.”* The review below was first posted on October 25, 2017 and has been slightly revised.
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.
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 of 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 entire family to America.
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 exquisite 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 had felt uncomfortable as a Greek immigrant “outsider” in Hollywood’s illusory world of fabricated glamour. With this movie, Kazan embraced his ethnic roots and, to a certain degree, tried to come to terms with his strained relationship with his deceased father, a theme he would deeply explore in his next film, “The Arrangement.”
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 (see here). 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.
*Grammar note: Nope, that’s not a typo. Kazan did not include a comma in the title of “America America.”
Next up: Kazan’s seventeenth film: “The Arrangement”