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In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, director Elia Kazan recounts a disagreement he had with his production advisors while working on America, America. The film’s protagonist, a twenty-year-old Anatolian Greek of humble origins named Stavros (Stathis Giallelis), arrives as an immigrant in the United States, whereupon he falls to his knees in gratitude and kisses the ground. Kazan was told that the gesture was a cliche and should be cut from the movie. He at first relented, but then had second-thoughts: “I doubt that anyone born in the United States has or can have a true appreciation of what America is.” The ground-kissing scene was left intact. America, America was too close to Kazan’s heart for compromise. He wrote the screenplay (and novel) as a means of exploring his family’s cultural heritage and honoring the dreams that brought Europeans pouring into America at the turn of the century. Kazan, born in Turkey, was four years old when he came to the U.S. with his parents in 1912.
The character of Stavros Topouzoglou is based on Kazan’s uncle, who was the first member of the family to immigrate. America, America primarily concerns Stavros’ journey from central Turkey to the harbor city of Constantinople, where he eventually boards passage to the States. Filmed on location under difficult circumstances, the movie looks and sounds unlike anything Kazan had directed before. The first hour is an extraordinary depiction of impoverished villages percolating with vibrant folk music and whispered political tensions. Fog-shrouded mountain vistas stretch across the landscape. Oppression rears its head when the Turkish Army sets fire to a church filled with Armenian women and children. No small measure of the impact of these powerful images is due to cinematographer Haskell Wexler and editor Dede Allen. Wexler’s framing at times recalls the classic compositional rigor of Potemkin or Citizen Kane. (While praising his camerawork, Kazan claims that Wexler was a “pain in the ass” who despised the director’s reactionary politics and hated the script.)
As the action shifts toward Constantinople, America, America becomes a different kind of story, a picaresque tale, and requires a lighter touch than Kazan brings to the material. He’s never evinced a talent for humor, even in an ostensibly satirical film like A Face in the Crowd, which attaches glum sociological messages to its jokes. Something similar befalls America, America. There is a painfully protracted sequence, clearly meant to be sardonic and funny, in which Stavros is slowly divested of his money and belongings by a wily traveling companion named Abdul (Lou Antonio). The indignities and humiliations don’t build with any comic or dramatic force, so we fail to respond emotionally when the worm turns and Stavros stabs Abdul to death.
A fatal weakness at the film’s center is the performance by Stathis Giallelis as Stavros. Kazan discovered the actor sweeping floors in an Athens film production office. Although photogenic and likable, Giallelis’ limitations are glaringly discernible. He’s not up to the challenge of creating a complex characterization or holding our interest for the film’s nearly three-hour length. When Stavros becomes involved in a phony marriage scheme to raise money for his ship fare to the U.S., neither Giallelis nor Kazan seem certain of how to convey the character’s conflicted motivations from scene to scene. Kazan uses the actor as a brooding presence whose single-minded obsession with America is supposed to be our key to understanding him. This strategy works fine earlier in the film, but because America, America is also Stavros’ coming-of-age story, we expect more depth from the character as his experiences broaden.
Supporting roles are strong. John Marley (later to star in John Cassavete’s Faces) appears briefly as a lusty, almost Zorba-like, Greek separatist who introduces Stavros to whorehouses and terrorism. Paul Mann is robust and paternal as Aleko Sinnikoglou, a wealthy carpet merchant who hopes to make Stavros his son-in-law. As Aleko’s fetching daughter, Thomna, Linda Marsh has the delicate yearnings of a Tennessee Williams’ heroine, but she is given little to work with in her scenes with Stavros. Perhaps in an effort to disguise Giallelis’ wooden performance, the final third of the film is overcrowded with unnecessary subsidiary characters and melodramatic subplots. By the time we’re finally aboard ship headed for America, Kazan has his hands full orchestrating one climactic crescendo after another.
The film was not a commercial success in the United States, though it fared better overseas. Critical response was mixed. (Its Oscar win was for Gene Callahan’s art direction.) If time has not improved its flaws, the movie’s stylistic virtues remain impressive. One can sense Kazan learning to apply aspects of cinematic language that were new and exciting for him. At its best—when the images are allowed to speak for themselves—America, America achieves a rare poetic grace.
– Bob Wake