AMERICA AMERICA (1963)

  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Writer: Elia Kazan
  • Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Gregory Rozakis, Lou Antonio, Salem Ludwig, John Marley, Joanna Frank, Paul Mann, Linda Marsh, Robert H. Harris, Katherine Balfour, and Elia Kazan
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#85), 1964 San Sebastián International Film Festival – Golden Shell Award, 1 Oscar (Best Art Direction), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Elia Kazan, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Prior to starting this site and combing through a series of lists of the best movies, I had never heard of America America. From context it seems likely that, despite the title and being American-financed and made with an American writer/director and a mostly-American cast, it is far more seen and remembered in Europe than in the US. Occasionally, you will hear critics call a movie a director’s “most personal.” Well, there are personal movies and then there is this movie, which is not only literally the story of Elia Kazan’s own Uncle (Stathis Giallelis), but actually narrated by Kazan in the first person. The opening line is “Hello, I’m Elia Kazan.”

Martin Scorsese has stated that this movie takes place at a “transition point” between mass-produced Hollywood movies and a more, yes, “personal” American cinema, something that might be said about the mid-1960s in general. It is perhaps for that reason that it feels quite unlike anything that I’d seen. The Greek actor Stathis Giallelis, not known in film circles for any other role, is in nearly every frame of this movie, and there are nearly three hours of frames. The rest of the cast is mostly American actors, which leaves us in the unfamiliar position of having American actors doing American accents, playing these characters in rural Turkey or Constantinople. In terms of editing, cinematography, production values, this is a full on Hollywood movie of the same era. There is very little difference in terms of the specifics of production values between this movie and Kazan’s On the Waterfront, from nine years earlier. Today, if you made a movie like this, either it would be super low-budget and shot entirely with locals, or everyone would have British accents, or speak English with local accents. I have pointed out numerous times (as my spouse will testify) that if your story is set entirely somewhere they actually don’t speak English, there’s no reason to have them not speak with regular American accents. If anything, it gives the whole thing this feel of “foreign-ness” that might stand in the way of some Americans connecting with the characters. My opinion is you should either do the movie in the native language or translate it “all the way,” so to speak, but this is one of the very rare examples of them doing just that.

As I said, this is the story of Kazan’s Uncle Stavros, an Anatolian Greek (meaning a person of Greek descent living in Central or Eastern Turkey) who leaves his small village, first for Constantinople and then by ship for America, where he has always dreamed of going. He eventually earns enough to bring his entirely extended family to America, but not until the very final scenes of the movie. Very loosely, the movie’s three hour running time can be divided into three parts of approximately equal length. In the first, Stavros experiences the “Hamidian Massacres,” an historical event from around 1896, in which all of the villagers of Armenian descent are killed by the Turkish government, including Stavros’ friend Vartan (Frank Wolff). Recognizing that its only a matter of time before the authorities come for them, Stavros’ greek family sends him to Constantinople with all of the family’s wealth, with the idea that he will work and earn enough to bring the rest of the family with him. Stavros then loses all the money during his somewhat picaresque journey to the city.

In the second part, Stavros refuses to tell his own family that he lost all their money and undertakes various schemes to try and earn enough money to get to America. Eventually deciding he has no other choice, Stavros gives in and successfully convinces a girl with a rich father (Linda Marsh) to marry him, requesting a dowry from her father in the exact amount he needs to go to America. Though he comes to care for her, he eventually tells her father (Paul Mann) that he can’t marry her because he can’t give up his dreams of going to America. In the third part of the movie, Stavros convinces the wife (Katherine Balfour) of an American businessman (Robert H. Harris) to bankroll his trip to America, and undertakes the sea voyage, but on the way the man figures out Stavros is having an affair with his wife. Stavros is going to be sent back to Turkey until his friend Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), an Armenian who is traveling to the US to be basically an indentured servant shoe shiner, realizes he will not be allowed to enter the country due to Tuberculosis and jumps off the side of the ship to his death. This enables Stavros to assume Hohannes’ identity and enter the country as a shoe shine boy. In the film’s final lines, Kazan narrates: “And he did bring them. It took a number of years, but one by one, he brought them here. Except for his father. That old man died where he was born.”

One thing I found really interesting about America America is Kazan’s willingness to let his lead character have flaws, despite it literally being a member of his own family. Stavros does things that are transparently dumb or naive. At one point he kills the dude who stole all his stuff (Lou Antonio). After he is betrothed to the girl, he is so taciturn (in an effort to repress his own feelings) that he ends up hurting her. She gets a big scene where she cries, “Say something, say something!” Yet he still can’t bring himself to say anything, or smile, or quite touch her (he reaches out as if to touch her but holds himself back). As a viewer you spend a solid half of the movie wanting to yell at Stavros. It’s important to note, I think, that I don’t see this as a flaw. It lends that specificity that, paradoxically, leads directly to a feeling of universality. That is to say, by making his immigration story a very specific portrait of this individual, he makes a story that people can see different aspects of themselves in a way not possible in a more “generalized” story.

So I found America America to be a really interesting curiosity of film history, and really interesting to watch generally. Is it a great movie, or even one I can recommend to movie fans generally? I really don’t know. It’s so specific that it’s hard for me to deal with outside of this context. I suppose i might say, if the plot description sounds interesting to you, you’ll probably find the movie interesting and not mind the length. If you don’t, this movie is probably going to go on forever. For my part, I’m glad that working on this site brought this less-watched movie to my attention.

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