Dir. Elia Kazan. U.S. 1963

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As the Ottoman Empire’s stability crumbled in the nineteenth century as a result of internal corruption and perceived outside threats, oppression and intolerance of Greek and Armenian minorities multiplied. Pogroms organized by the Sultan in 1895 and 1896 resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Armenians and the displacement of thousands of Greeks, many of whom looked to America as a salvation. Between 1890 and 1917, 450,000 Greeks (90% male) arrived in the U.S. seeking freedom and opportunity. One of their stories is told by director Elia Kazan in his 1963 film America, America, based on his novel of his uncle’s journey to America in 1896 from his homeland of Anatolia. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but lost to Tom Jones.
Shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler in black-and-white using non-professional actors, America, America is the story of a young Greek, Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) and the enormous obstacles he faces in trying to reach America’s golden shores. Under Wexler’s guidance, the film has the look and feel of a documentary, marred only by its awkward dubbing (Stavros’ grandmother, for example, sounding like Sadie from Brooklyn). As the film opens, we hear the words of the director, “I’m Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.”

After Vartan (Frank Wolff), a close Armenian friend of Stavros, is murdered by the Turks and Stavros is dismayed by his father’s compromising attitude towards the Turkish oppressors, he is entrusted by his parents, Isaac (Harry Davis), and Vasso (Elena Karam) with all of the family’s wealth and sent on a two-hour journey to Constantinople to join his cousin Odysseus (Salem Ludwig) in the rug business. Along the way, however, Stavros is robbed by the despicable thief Abdul (Lou Antonio) who pretends to be his friend but betrays him and takes of all of his wealth. Penniless but still determined to go to America, Stavros rejects the offer of an arranged marriage with the daughter (Linda Marsh) of a wealthy rug dealer, even though she is devoted to him and can look past his deceitful purposes.

He is able, however, to use his dowry money to buy a third-class passage to the United States but must first get past additional and seemingly impossible obstacles once onboard ship and eventually must rely on the sacrifice of a young Armenian indentured shoeshine boy, Hohanness Gardashian (Gregory Rozakis). America, America is obviously a heartfelt and personal film for Mr. Kazan but will never be thought of in the same light as On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, even though it is said to be Kazan’s favorite.

There are segments that are authentic including the scene at Ellis Island when the passengers wait for their turn to be approved or denied, and also those involving Ms. Marsh and Katherine Balfour, a lonely wife Stavros entertains aboard ship. While the film is a powerful rendering of the immigrant experience, it never becomes a cohesive whole. Limited by a banal script, an unwieldy running time, a lack of character growth, and a lead actor whose expression ranges from dour to morose, America, America ultimately stumbles in its attempt at being a work of true epic stature.


Howard Schumann

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