June 13, 2011

5 America, America (1963)

Country: US
Director: Elia Kazan

If I hadn't already known that America, America was directed by Elia Kazan, I doubt that I ever would have guessed it, so different is this picture from anything else by Kazan I've seen. Kazan used unfamiliar actors and technicians for the film—it was photographed by Haskell Wexler and edited by Dede Allen, both little known at the time but within a few years to become luminaries in their fields—and shot it almost entirely in Greece and Turkey. With its location shooting, cast of unknowns, use of the hand-held camera, and post-sync sound recording, it has a distinctly European feel, almost in the tradition of Italian neorealism. The thing which most sets it apart from the rest of Kazan's work, though, is its screenplay. Kazan is known for his masterful interpretation of screenplays written by other people—Tennessee Williams, William Inge, John Steinbeck, Budd Schulberg for example—to which according to Kazan he often made uncredited contributions, but America, America was the first picture he conceived and wrote by himself. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan explains how, nearly twenty years into his career as a film director, he came to the decision to write his first screenplay: "In someone else's hands, it would lose its flavor. I'd grown up in that environment, remembered every sight, sound, smell, and taste. . . . I had to write that screenplay myself."

The film opens with a montage of landscapes of Anatolia in Turkey and Kazan's voice-over: "My name is Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, Turk by birth, American because my uncle made a journey." It is the story, handed down orally in Kazan's family, of how his uncle, in the film called Stavros (Stathis Giallelis), became the first member of Kazan's family to emigrate to the U.S. and later arranged for his mother and his sisters and brothers along with their families to follow him one by one. (Kazan himself came when he was four years old.) It is not the story of the immigrant experience in America, but of everything that led up to that experience. It is at the same time a classic bildungsroman, or story of the coming of age and education in life of a young man, and a chronicle of overcoming huge obstacles to achieve a dream.

The film begins in 1896, when Stavros, a teenager living in what is the eastern part of modern Turkey, and his family become caught up in the struggle of the Armenian and Greek minorities against the ruling Ottoman Turks. The first part of the film establishes the state of terror the family lives in as the Ottoman government takes reprisals against the rebellious minority populations, culminating in a harrowing sequence in which Stavros's Armenian friend sacrifices himself to save Armenian villagers from being burned alive by soldiers after taking refuge in a church. Finally, in desperation his father takes all the family's material assets and dispatches Stavros to Istanbul, where he is to set himself up in business with his uncle, a prosperous rug merchant, and send for the rest of the family after he is established. But nothing goes according to his father's plans. On the way the naive Stavros is robbed, falsely accused of crimes he didn't commit, and finally forced to kill a man to save himself from death. He arrives in Istanbul relieved to have made it to his destination, but exhausted, penniless, and in rags.

Unable to fulfill his duty to his family, Stavros is sustained by one thing: his dream of emigrating to America to start over. Yet time and again circumstances contrive to block him. Far from being a successful businessman, his uncle is a financial failure who can do nothing to help him except urge him to marry the plain daughter of the rich merchant across the road. Instead Stavros works as a laborer, realizing that it will take years to save enough money for his passage. First he is robbed by a prostitute, then brutally beaten by police in a raid on a revolutionary group he has fallen in with and left for dead. After he endures one setback after another, his fixity of purpose begins to border on obsession. Inured to moral scruples, he turns ruthless and exploitative in his willingness to do anything necessary to make his dream of reaching America real.

The gradual transformation of Stavros from gentle, simple boy to hardened and mistrustful man cannot have been an easy one for Kazan to write or for the inexperienced young actor Stathis Giallelis, whom Kazan personally chose and spent more than a year grooming for the role, to play. Yet both manage to bring it off, making us understand clearly how and why Stavros becomes what he does. Stavros is both a victim and a victimizer, and Kazan and Giallelis never let us lose sight of this essential conflict of identity churning within him. Stavros is at heart a decent man, but a decent man with a dream that requires him to do things decent people don't do easily. Still, he never entirely loses his awareness of the moral compromises he must make to attain his goal, somehow managing despite all that happens to him to hold onto his inner humanity. “I’ve always kept my honor safe inside me," he says at one point.

We see flashes of his humanity from time to time when this repressed part of his nature impels him to treat those even less fortunate than himself with kindness—the sweet-tempered girl he plans to marry for her money then desert, a love-starved woman older than himself, a fatally ill young man he supports in his hopeless dream of reaching America too. Stavros's bitterness at having his aspirations repeatedly thwarted, as great as that bitterness is, never quite consumes him altogether. We are always aware that if he does achieve his dream, there is every chance that spark of humanity he has been forced to damp down will flare up again and shine bright. "In America I believe I will be washed clean," he says.

It takes roughly two-thirds of the movie—and a frustrating series of defeats and reversals and the rare stroke of fortuitous good luck—before Stavros at last manages to secure a third-class ticket and board the ship that will take him to America. But just as he arrives in New York, calamity strikes again and it seems as if circumstances are propelling him toward inevitable disappointment, that he will be rejected by the immigration authorities and sent back to Turkey. Then just as suddenly Stavros's fortunes reverse yet again, when the unexpected repayment of his kindness to one of the other emigrants on board makes it possible for his dream to come true. In the end his success at creating a new life in America is the result of both years of unwavering determination and his refusal to give up the last vestiges of his humanity.

Of the many beautifully staged and photographed scenes in the movie, my favorite occurs right before the end, directly after the ship has docked and the immigrants have disembarked. Stavros has been herded along with his fellow passengers into the huge immigration hall at Ellis Island, but because the immigration officials have left for the day, the newcomers must spend their first night in America inside the hall. When light breaks the next morning, everyone is asleep and the hall almost completely silent. As the immigration officers start to arrive, the exhausted immigrants begin to wake and stir. Within moments the packed hall goes from complete inactivity to a frenzy of movement, while the dozy silence erupts into a cacophony, and we see and hear the hopeful excitement of these people as they prepare to begin their new lives in a new land.

America, America is Kazan's most personal film not only because it deals with his own family's history, but also because it is one of his most human and least dramatically stylized films. Kazan deals with issues of tremendous importance, issues like genocide, poverty, ethnic bigotry, class prejudice, and the injustices endured by immigrants in the U.S. But he makes the artistic decision to deal with these large issues on the human scale, as part of the context of the particular story he is telling. The powerful emotional reactions the movie elicits grow organically from the characters and their experiences, and that humanizing tendency is precisely what makes this film so accessible and so moving.

America, America is a great achievement even for the director of A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden and unlike anything else in Kazan's filmography. It's clear that for Kazan, writing and directing this picture, which he has often called his favorite, were labors of love. It is in many ways the summit of his remarkable career in film.


  1. R.D.

    Just another a magnificent review. I recorded this film off TCM a while back and it has been misplaced, misfiled or lost. If I don't find it soon, I will be forced to buy it from Amazon. I have always read how this was Kazan's most personal film, his love child, and from what you say it seems to live up to the promise. It deals with the reasons so many immigrants came to America, a better life. One of my favorite scenes from THE GODFATHER 2 are the Ellis Island scenes that feel so authentic and I get the impression Kazan's film provides this same sense of hope and authenticity.

  2. John, thank you for your comment. I also recorded this off TCM recently. I've been curious about it ever since it was released, but it played hardly anywhere and financially was a big flop and never seemed to make it to the art house circuit. I don't believe it was available on DVD until last fall. In his documentary "Letter to Elia," Martin Scorsese has nothing but praise for this film, and after watching it I can see why. It's finally available on Netflix too. The other Kazan movie he really liked that I have yet to see is "Wild River." I'm hoping TCM will eventually show it too.

  3. I haven't seen this one, but it sounds very interesting from your review, R.D, and I will hope to do so in future. On another tack, I left you a long comment on your Tracy and Hepburn review the other day about 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', but it hasn't shown up - could you look if it has landed in your spam filter? Thanks!

  4. Judy, thanks to alerting me to your comment on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." I published it and responded to it under that post.

    I've enabled a feature that puts comments on posts older than two weeks in an inbox for moderation. I did this because I found that occasionally older posts would get spammed with comments that link to commercial sites. Unfortunately, Blogger is not well set up to notify me when there are comments awaiting moderation. If I forget to check, they languish as yours did! Thanks again for all the wonderful comments you have left.

  5. Thanks, R.D., and thanks very much for your reply there.