The movie America, America was adapted by Elia Kazan from his novel of the same name. A 163 minute ode to his Greek uncle who immigrated to the United States from the Anatolian Mountains the movie begins with a dark screen and a voice over explaining that the Greeks had moved to the Anatolian mountains and lived with the Armenians.
When it opens to the main character Stavros Topouzoglou and his Armenian friend/mentor Vartan getting ice from the mountain to take to the village in 1898, the viewer is immediately drawn into the story. Vartan is telling Stavros it is time to immigrate to America before it is too late foreshadowing the imminent change in their fortunes.
Segue to a meeting of the Turkish council that rules over the Greeks and Armenians. The council is portrayed as very normal men, which makes their decisions more startling. The governor reads a note from the Ottoman ruler that some Armenians had bombed a bank in a Turkish city. The governors are to punish the Armenians in a way of their choosing.
When Stavros and Vartan return to the village, the Greeks are hurrying to their homes and the Armenians are being moved to the church. Refusing to show fear, Stavros goes to the bar, therefore, he is not rounded up and sent to the church. Detained by his Greek mother who forces him to return home, Stavros crawls out a window to rejoin Vartan. They make the decision to leave the bar to head to America, but as they leave, they hear the Armenian people in the church and watch as the Turkish soldiers set the church on fire. Vartan attacks a soldier and some young people who were also missed in the roundup, tear open one of the doors and many of the Armenians escape. Vartan has been killed. This portrayal of the persecution of the Armenian people by the Turkish government on film was unprecedented and could be the first example of the human rights movies of the seventies. The film was shot on location in Turkey until officials decided that the film could reflect badly on Turkey. When Kazan moved the production to Greece, cans of film were confiscated. Fortunately, the labels on the cans had been switched so those portions of the film were saved.
Stavros runs to his grandmother who still lives in the caves in the Anatolian Mountains to ask for money to go to America. She curses him for being a sheep like his father and sends him on a way, but she does give him a knife. As he leaves her cave, he commits an act of generosity that will later have great ramifications He sees a man who has been walking long enough to have worn out his shoes. Stavros gives him his shoes and walks home shoeless.
Stathis Glallelis was cast for the part of Stavros. Kazan went to Greece to run auditions. Glallelis auditioned but as he was a newcomer he was turned down. Kazan returned to the United States. When Glallelis spent all his money to follow Kazan to the U.S., Kazan decided he embodied the spirit of Stavros. He later regretted this choice. Glallelis did not have the emotional range necessary to play Stavros. He was unable to create the empathy necessary to pull the audience into his struggle making some of his actions seem more self-serving than determined.
The protagonist Stevros’s long journey to America, begins when his father decides to entrust him with all their belongings and send him to his uncle in Constantinople in Instanbul. His father appears to be trying to shock him into responsibility.
His mother cries for the goods she knows he will lose, not returning his hug before he leaves, foreshadowing his poor decisions that will result in the loss of all their goods before the week is out.
Once away from home he is quickly befriended, conned, and then manipulated out of all his possessions by a gregarious Turk, whom he finally ends up killing in self-defense. The rest of the movie focuses on Stavros making his big plans come true, so his father will be proud of him. He works at hard labor for 9 months to earn 7 of the 110 pounds he needs to take the boat to America by carrying extremely heavy items on his back, only to have it stolen by his first prostitute arranged by his longshoremen friend–thus continuing his poor choice of friends.
To make it up to Stavros, the longshoreman takes him to an anarchist meeting which is disrupted with gunfire and everyone, except Stravos is killed. Taken for dead, Stavros is carted out of town. Fortunately, he falls out of the cart before being thrown over the cliff with the corpses.
Realizing he can’t work hard enough to make his passage, he turns to his uncle to arrange for a marriage to a “plain” girl with a wealthy father planning to leave her with her dowry as soon as they are married.
Finally, shamed by his developing feelings for her, he leaves before the wedding He has found a wealthy benefactor who will take him to America, if he spends time with her on the voyage when her husband sleeps.
When they reach America, the deception is discovered, and he is to be sent back. The young man who wore his shoes was also on the ship as an indentured shoe shine boy. Although guaranteed a job in America, the young man has become very ill, perhaps with tuberculosis. When he sees Stavros’s despair at being so close to America just to be sent back, the young man sets his shoes on the deck and jumps off the side of the ship. Stravos is able to use his identity to make it to New York City.
The movie closes with his father opening an envelope containing $50.00 given to him by his mistress, then cutting away to a final picture of the victorious Stavros as a elated shoe shine boy.
The story was moving and solid, but Glallegis was not able to portray the conflicting emotions of the main character. Through close up after close up, he looks exactly the same. The portions of the script where he is allowed to smile happily, he is transformed. Angst, torment, pensiveness, regret were beyond him.
The film won critical acclaim winning an Academy Award for Best Picture, but it must have been for intent, not delivery. The movie itself was heavily criticized on all fronts, except for its intent. Filming this story was difficult for the director for many reasons. He had obtained permission to film in Turkey, but when the government realized that it documented the massacre, they made the film crew and actors leave the country. Kazan hid the shot film in new film canisters when the crossed the border, which was fortuitous because the film in the labeled cans were confiscated.