May 3, 2011
America, America (1963)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Stathis Giallelis, John Marley, Linda Marsh

What it's about. Based on the saga of Kazan's uncle, and set in Turkey during the 1890s. The Turkish majority is persecuting its Armenian minority, and threatening its Greek minority into subservience. Young adult Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) vows to escape the humiliations endured by his practical father (Harry Davis) by emigrating to the United States.

Instead, his family decides to send him to Constantinople with their life savings. Over time, Stavros will relocate the family to Constantinople, where there is greater opportunity and less fear of persecution. But Stavros is robbed and nearly murdered. He becomes a day laborer, living in poverty but still dreaming of America.

Robbed again, and later shot and left for dead, the newly hardened Stavros finally takes the advice of his uncle (Salem Ludwig) and marries the "plain" daughter (Linda Marsh) of a wealthy merchant (Paul Mann). He begins a liaison with the lonely middle-aged wife (Katharine Balfour) of older and dissipated American businessman Kebabian (Robert H. Harris). Stavros accepts a position with Kebabian, and leaves for America. But it appears he will be denied entry after the influential Kebabian learns of his wife's affair.

How others will see it. The critics raved over America, America, which was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and best screenplay. But the movie was a box office dud, and still resides in the shadows of Kazan's best known films (e.g. On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire).

How I felt about it. The movie, based on true events, is a testimony to perseverance. Stavros could have, and should have, abandoned his dream, or even died, on several occasions. Not even the wealth of his in-laws, and the love of his comely and dutiful wife, which promise a comfortable life, will keep him from America.

Stavros' story would not be believed if it were not true. Elia Kazan would never have directed a single film if his fire-eyed uncle had not ultimately succeeded. Not only did Stavros reach America, but he kept his promise to his family back in Turkey, and brought them over one by one.

In addition to its status as a heroic epic, America, America is also an indictment of Ottomon Empire Turkey, which comes across as a violent and corrupt society under a discriminatory military dictatorship. The United States, of course, had problems of its own, but in comparison, it represented freedom. Certainly, nobody there cared if you were Greek or Armenian, as long as you had money and could speak English.

Elia Kazan's remarkable ability as a director has been unfortunately overshadowed by his participation in the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunt. Kazan named names, and likely put movie industry members on the blacklist. But it has to be mentioned that Kazan was subpoenaed, under oath, and told the truth to a Congressional committee.

If Kazan is to blame, then so is the entire Hollywood industry, which cowardly supported the blacklist until the mid-1960s. Actors, directors, etc. who worked during the blacklist era took the jobs of their blacklisted counterparts. They did not go on strike to support their blacklisted brethren. They simply waited until the political environment changed, then, surprise, they were against the blacklist all along.

Many top actors, such as John Wayne, supported the blacklist, yet that is not held against them today. And those who were active in Communist groups should not have been surprised when their activities were revealed years later.

The bottom line is that nobody is perfect, and telling the truth under oath is better than the cynical, hypocritical, or self-serving actions of many of Kazan's contemporaries.