America, America 1963

I believe … I believe that in America I will be washed clean. “

Elia Kazan directed this rather neglected film in 1963 about the journey of his uncle from Anatolia in Turkey to the shores of America as an emig­rant. The film is in black and white (with striking cine­ma­to­graphy by Haskell Wexler) and is epic in both its scope and its running time of over three hours. That imme­di­ately sets it apart from the other ‘epic’ wide-screen colour films of the same period; such as Cleo­patra, which came out the same year, and Lawrence of Arabia, released the year before.

America, America retains much of the grit­ti­ness of Kazan’s earlier films such as On The Water­front although it is painted on a much bigger canvas. It is unusual in that it features no box office names, and it’s in English but with a completely un-American feel to it. Both the setting and the style have an authen­ti­city about them – more so than many of its glos­sier contemporaries.

It tells the story of Stavros (played by unknown Stathis Gial­lelis), the sole son in a poor Greek family who are oppressed by the Turks.  One day Stavros hears of America from a wandering shep­herd.  It becomes his dream and obses­sion to go there. The film ends, after many trials and sacri­fices, with Stavros arriving at Staten Island, determ­ined to begin a new life.

A signi­ficant portion of the plot reads like a classic fairy story: a young son is sent on a journey to rescue his family fortunes. He is betrayed and loses everything but fights his way back and remains true to his dreams until he wins through.

But if it sounds like a text­book version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then that does the film an injustice. America, America explores some complex moral themes and is a much more layered and textured film than a simple biopic about an emig­rant making good.

Scene 1

Char­acter: making the crucial choice

At this point in the story, Stavros’ fortunes are at a low ebb.  After losing all the posses­sions his family entrusted to him, he has been working as a porter, sleeping on the streets, and liter­ally eating garbage. Then a relative arranges a marriage for him with the daughter of a rich Greek businessman.

In this scene, his future father in law is expli­citly offering Stavros a life of security, comfort and certainity in persuasive and graphic language. All he has to do is marry the young woman, Thomna, who is a sympath­etic and like­able person. But, as with so many crucial choices given to prot­ag­on­ists,  if he says yes, there is a price to be paid –  he’ll have to give up his dream of going to America.

Read the script
Extract from America, America (DOC).

Scene 2

Char­acter: power and relationships

This scene follows almost imme­di­ately upon the first scene but couldn’t be more different in tone. Stavros and Thomna are alone together for the first time and the true basis of their rela­tion­ship emerges. The two char­ac­ters are diamet­ric­ally opposed in their natures: Thomna is intu­itive and generous, Stavros reserved and brooding.

Thomna declares herself to be completely subor­dinate to her husband’s will, without any power or status, and yet she is the one who drives the scene. Again and again throughout the encounter, she gets the truth from Stavros despite his determ­in­a­tion to keep it from her.

Read the script
Second extract from America, America (DOC).

David Clough ©2011

Elia Kazan talks about America, America

What to read next
Article on America, America by Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema (PDF)

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