“I’m Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.” So begins Kazan’s 1963 opus America America. It’s a relatively unheralded entry in a filmography that includes A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, and A Face In The Crowd, but America America is unquestionably his most personal work, and a rare case where Kazan wrote his own screenplay. Though it drew Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and Screenplay (winning for Art Direction), and earned a place on the National Film Registry, there are reasons beyond politics why Kazan’s three-hour epic is considered second-tier: It’s a crude, clunky piece of writing, hampered by variable performances and a leading man whose looks of silent resolve are more compelling than his line-readings. Yet the film has the elemental power of a classic immigrant story, revealing a young man’s single-minded, arduous journey to America through black-and-white images that evoke the country’s promise to the huddled masses.
America America opens in Turkey in the late 1890s, when the Ottoman Empire was brutalizing and killing its Greek and Armenian minorities. With steely determination, Stathis Giallelis gathers the few resources his rural family can muster and makes his way to America, a quest that takes him years—and nearly the entire length of the movie—just to attempt, much less accomplish. Getting to Constantinople alone takes him on a circuitous route through many detours, and once he arrives, penniless, there’s the issue of raising enough money to get on the boat, then getting past Ellis Island. Giallelis catches a break when he arranges to marry the daughter (Linda Marsh) of a wealthy merchant (Paul Mann, channeling Emil Jannings), but his plan to take the dowry and run leads to complications.
An extraordinary scene where Giallelis’ wife-to-be confronts him about his secrets may be the only dramatically authentic one in a film that deals mostly in outsized emotions. Yet America America has a sweep and heart that transcends its many shortcomings: Over the sprawling runtime, Kazan conveys the grueling scope of Giallelis’ wayward journey, which only moves forward after going sideways and backward first. But the real hero of America, America is cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whose dramatic lighting and striking black-and-white compositions suggest a better movie might have been made without sound. Giallelis’ story is the story of America writ large, and while it isn’t always convincing in its particulars, it’s stirring in sentiment.
Key features: A commentary track by Foster Hirsch, a film historian who considers America America to be Kazan’s greatest achievement, and argues well in its favor.