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America America (1963) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

stavros immigration abdul american

Principal social theme: immigration

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Elena Karam, Lou Antonio, John Marley, Estelle Helmsley, Robert H. Harris, Gregory Rozakis, Salem Ludwig, Linda Marsh, Paul Mann, Joanna Frank, Harry Davis. Written by Elia Kazan. Cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Edited by Dede Allen. Music by Manos Hadjidakis. Produced by Charles H. Maguire. Directed by Elia Kazan. B&W. 168 minutes.


This epic film by legendary director Elia Kazan tells the story of his uncle’s efforts to emigrate to America in the late nineteenth century. Filmed on location in Turkey, Greece, and the United States, this highly personal motion picture is one of the most dramatic immigration stories ever filmed. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.


The film opens with narration by Elia Kazan, who calls himself “a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.” His uncle’s story is then presented on screen, beginning in 1896 when Kazan’s Uncle Stavros, a restless young man tired of the Turkish oppression of the Greeks and Armenians, vows to make his way to America. When he is approached by a young Armenian, Hohannes, who is also trying to come to America, Stavros generously gives him his shoes. When Stavros’s father decides that his family should move to Constantinople (Istanbul), he pools all his family’s finest possessions and sends his son on the hazardous journey to the capital to scout it out for him. Another traveler, Abdul, a verbose Muslim beggar, joins Stavros on his trek, but little by little he steals his goods. When Stavros tries to escape from his clutches, Abdul goes to the police and claims Stavros stole all his possessions from him. The police take the goods for themselves. Abdul tracks down Stavros and demands the gold coins that he saw the boy swallow when the police arrested him. The beggar announces his plans to kill him after praying to Mecca, but instead Stavros kills Abdul while the Muslim prays.

Stavros continues to make his way to Istanbul, but by the time he arrives there, he is penniless. He goes to the carpet shop run by his father’s cousin, who expects to save his business with the funds that Stavros had been carrying. When he finds that all his money was stolen, the merchant writes to the boy’s father describing his son’s failure. Stavros tries to restore the lost money by working as a laborer, but he is unable to save very much. Finally, Stavros is shot by soldiers on a raid looking for Armenian terrorists. Mistaken for dead, Stavros is loaded onto a cart filled with corpses. He topples off and makes his way back to the carpet shop. The merchant proposes a new plan for gaining money. He will dress Stavros in fine clothes and introduce him to the families of rich Greeks with plain daughters seeking husbands. Stavros undertakes the charade, and he even falls in love with Tomna, his betrothed. He is tempted by the soft life he could live, but he chooses to take his dowry money and book passage to America. He confesses his plans to Tomna, who is heartbroken yet grateful that Stavros has told her the truth. While on the ship, Stavros again meets Hohannes, who is ill with tuberculosis. Hohannes had gained passage with seven other young refugees from a New York businessman in exchange for two years of servitude as a bootblack. Stavros is seduced by the wife of Aratoon Kebabian, a wealthy Greek-American. When he learns of the affair, Kebabian plans to use his influence so that Stavros will be rejected by the American immigration officials and returned to Turkey. Stavros plans to jump ship and try to swim to shore. Hohannes, knowing he has only a short time to live, jumps instead and drowns. The businessman aids Stavros by allowing him to assume Hohannes’ identity. The immigration officials give him a new name, Joe Arness, on his immigration papers. The officials are informed that it was Stavros who had been killed. Stavros works hard in New York, and eventually he earns enough money to bring all the members of his family to America.


America America is a powerful invocation of the promise of America to refugees around the world. The Ottoman Empire is portrayed as oppressive and brutal, with the oppression of the Armenians foreshadowing the even more terrible episodes of genocide to follow. The Muslim faith is not portrayed in a positive light, particularly in their callous persecution of the Christian Armenians and Greeks. Islam is exemplified by Abdul, the crafty thief who continually quotes Mohammed while he robs Stavros. Finally, as Abdul plans to kill Stavros, he flamboyantly prepares for the event by elaborately bowing and praying in the direction of Mecca. With Abdul’s death after their struggle, Stavros loses his innocence. He is no longer the smiling hopeful youth. For the rest of the film he frowns as he endures hardship and adversity to realize his dream of reaching America and bringing his family to this new land. His real crisis of confidence comes when he becomes Tomna’s suitor in order to gain the dowry. In one act of humanity, he refuses the larger dowry offered, only accepting the minimum he needs to pay for his passage to America. In his relationship with Tomna, Stavros loses the sympathy of much of the audience, who feel that if he were patient he would have been able to emigrate later, with her. His final passage to the new world involves another sacrifice, the life of his friend Hohannes, who kills himself so Stavros can take his place. The first three-quarters of the film represent a graphic portrayal of the obstacles that may face immigrants wishing to come to America. The final hurdle involves immigration laws, but in this case, American officials eager to welcome the immigrants to America, apply the laws in a tolerant manner. Their recommendation to adopt an American-sounding name is not done sarcastically but with the sincere desire to help the newcomer’s transition.

Many moments of America America are stunning and poetic, and the cinematography is tremendously effective. The other production values, the acting, and production design are also tremendously striking and even moving. America America depicts one breathtaking and true-life example that can serve as a metaphor for the immigration experience as a whole.


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