Warner Bros. // 1963 // 168 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // February 23rd, 2011
The inspiring story of one Immigrant's Journey To Fulfill His Dream.
"My name is Elia Kazan. I am Greek by blood, a Turk by birth and an American because my uncle made a journey."
In the late 1890s, Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) a young, ethnic Greek, born and raised in Turkey, wants to go to America and start a new life. However, almost every obstacle imaginable stands in his way: geography, his family, thieves, bad luck, naiveté, ego, temptation, and even, perhaps, America itself. But Stavros will not be denied, even if it means doing things of which he's not proud and things he swore never to do.
Elia Kazan's (On The Waterfront) film America America is a saga about one man's desire to leave everything behind and go to America. It's a decisively non-romanticized story based on the true story of Kazan's uncle. It details the trials, tribulations, and compromises (moral and other) required to make such a decision and journey.
Stavros's determination to head for America is set off by the volatile and precarious situation of Armenians and Greeks living in Turkey. When a particular persecution of Armenians by the Turkish government leaves Stavros's best friend, an Armenian, dead, Stavros decides once and for all that he must escape his oppressive environment for the perceived freedom and tolerance afforded by America. Stavros knows almost nothing about America. Really, it is truly escape that he is after. There are no thoughts of "making it big" or any other pre-occupations with material accumulation.
Stavros's determination puts him in direct conflict with his family. While they harbor some of the same concerns as he does, they do not believe that drastic action are required. They believe that by relocating within Turkey, through leaving their small town for the capital city of Constantinople -- officially renamed Istanbul in 1930 -- that a more stable environment is attainable. They send Stavros there with every penny they have to establish a base. However, Stavros doesn't get very far in journey before he loses everything. And this is just the beginning of his odyssey.
Stavros is continually ground down by circumstances in his efforts to escape. For every step forward, he is pushed many steps back. He takes on back breaking manual labor only to have his earnings stolen. He gets caught-up with anarchists that almost get him killed. He's ashamed of his failures and doesn't want his father to find out. He loses his smile and nearly has his spirit broken completely. He becomes hardened by these experiences, bordering on callous. As a weary, but still unwavering Stavros states to another young man with the same dream: "You can't afford to be human. People take advantage."
America America could have easily been a melodramatic mess, but it isn't. It's deeply focused on its subject, the struggle of Stavros. Stavros doesn't have any sudden epiphanies that dramatically change his character. He is shaped by his experiences gradually. Stavros is not presented as a flawless hero. He makes a number of compromises with himself to achieve his dream, some of which are less than morally upright. There are no miracles or magic solutions. Instant success doesn't occur when he reaches American. The surroundings change, but life goes as it does everywhere else. As Stavros succinctly writes to his family, "In some ways, it's not different here. It's not that different. But let me tell you one thing, you have a new chance here."
It's a credit to Kazan that he is able to avoid romanticizing the subject matter. Instead, he shows in great detail just how tough a decision was, how hard it was to achieve, and that most immigrants take a huge leap of faith when leaving their home country. There are few storybook ending and rags to riches tales. More than anything else, it is about a new start.
One of the few qualms one can have with the film is the running time. At 168 minutes, the film flirts with epic length and occasionally drags. There are definitely sequences that could have used some judicious editing.
The technical aspects of this 1963 release are impressive. There is clear evidence of restorative efforts as the video quality is quite high. The black and white picture is detailed and clean. Grain and other imperfections are very minor. The audio is also extremely clean and without problems.
The lone extra is a commentary track provided by film historian and Kazan aficionado Foster Hirsch. Hirsch tends to be a little too reverential and academic at times, which can make the proceedings a little slow going. However, he is a wealth of information about Kazan and the film, covering Kazan's background with method acting and the Actor's Studio, the discovery of Giallelis, the film's themes, style, and production, and notes on many of the supporting actors in the picture.
America America is probably as close to an authentic look at the immigrant experience as a film is likely to get. In a time where travel and communication is easy and cheap for those of us living in relatively affluent parts of the world, America America is a helpful reminder that the decision to, and act of, emigrating from an oppressive, impoverished, and/or politically unstable country is a difficult and painful choice to make. In most cases, in both the past and present, the sacrifices required are great and the ultimate outcome is completely awash in uncertainty. Yet many have, are, and will continue to make such sacrifices in the hopes of a fresh start and the opportunity to improve their situation.
Review content copyright © 2011 Roy Hrab; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 168 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated