‘America America’: Promised Land to Political Refugees

A film that celebrates those who immigrated to our country in order to enjoy freedom and contribute to a better society.
‘America America’: Promised Land to Political Refugees
Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis, C) and Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis, R), in "America America." (Warner Bros.)

NR | 2 h 54 min | Drama, Biopic | 1963

Producer-screenwriter-director Elia Kazan’s impassioned two-minute voiceover introduction sets the context for his thoughtful film, loosely based on the life of his Greek uncle (Stavros on screen): “My name is Elia Kazan, I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.”

Kazan continues. Anatolia, the great plateau of Western Eurasia, was the home of Greeks and Armenians before being overrun by the Turks some centuries ago. All wore the same clothes, ate the same food, “suffered the heat together,” and looked up to the same mountain towering above the plain. But they experienced life differently: Turks as conquerors; Greeks and Armenians as conquered political fugitives in, and refugees from, their own home. Of course, such political refugees are vastly different from illegal immigrants crossing our southern border today, who bring with them a past in petty crime, drugs, and trafficking.

In late 19th-century Anatolia, a young Greek, Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), longs to be free of Ottoman Turkey’s oppression. Horrified, his family witnesses the slaughter of some Armenians. They sense that it’s merely a matter of time before the Turkish army targets Greeks, too. Frantic, they pack off the young man on a donkey with their precious belongings. If he can get to Constantinople, he can at least earn enough to usher the rest of his family toward opportunities in the big city.

But like the Americans he longs to share freedom with, Stavros dreams big. His eyes are set on a boat to America not an excursion to Constantinople, where the threat of Turkish oppression still looms. Working odd jobs, he tries to rustle up the $110 needed for his voyage but is robbed, humiliated, cheated by supposed friends, beaten, and shot at. Yet no sacrifice is big enough.

Director Elia Kasan (L) and Stathis Giallelis as Stavros Topouzoglou on the set of "America America." (Warner Bros.)
Director Elia Kasan (L) and Stathis Giallelis as Stavros Topouzoglou on the set of "America America." (Warner Bros.)

Particularly heartbreaking is Stavros’s parting from his lovely would-be bride, Thomna (Linda Marsh), daughter of rug trader Aleko Sinnikoglou (Paul Mann). Her father sees in him a prospective son-in-law and heir to his business. This parting haunts Stavros precisely because she’s so humble and caring. She deserves better than to be saddled with someone like him. Worse, he plans to desert her as soon as he gets his hands on passage money.

It’s no spoiler to say that in one dreamlike scene Stavros walks off the gangplank onto New York harbor and falls to the ground and kisses it, against a backdrop of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty.

Inspired Casting

Mr. Giallelis, 22, depicts the conflict between young Stavros’s idealism and realism. Suffocating fear sits alongside unquenchable hope. You can see it in his eyes and the way he sets his jaw, firm against what life throws at him. In 1963, when he made his film, Kazan’s clout could commandeer any marquee actor he wanted as his lead. Inspired, he stuck with a real-life, relatively unknown Greek who wouldn’t be hamstrung on screen because audiences couldn’t possibly associate him with distracting Hollywood folklore.
Elia Kazan directing a scene of "America America." (Mel Traxel/Warner Bros.)
Elia Kazan directing a scene of "America America." (Mel Traxel/Warner Bros.)

Ms. Marsh is perfect in her debut film. Thomna’s wealthy, gregarious, but domineering businessman father is only too ready to give her in marriage. But in a nearly wordless scene, she conveys the weight of her decision to Stavros. She can picture Stavros, intimidated by the prospect of plenty in a palatial home like hers; he pines for a higher order of freedom than financial freedom. Married to her, he’ll be just as yoked by his father-in-law as she’s been all her life under her overbearing father.

In a poetic sense, father and daughter represent two contrasting sides of Stavros’s troubled home country. If he makes suitably deferential noises, his would-be father-in-law guarantees him much wealth and leisure but too little freedom. His would-be bride reluctantly surrenders him from one motherland to another, knowing he’ll be freer, more respected, and more alive away from her than with her.

Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis, L) and Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), in "America America." (Warner Bros.)
Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis, L) and Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), in "America America." (Warner Bros.)

Unsurprisingly, as the boat nears America’s coast, Stavros and his refugee friend crowd the deck, still unsure of reaching port, so excited they can barely breathe. Standing up on the guardrail, they strain to spot the shore, above and beyond the waves and seagulls—every sound, every sight, every smell, every sensation—a promise of freedom.

By spotlighting a stifling part of Eurasia, Kazan shows just how much he, as an American, treasures its great tradition of freedom that allowed him to make the choices he did, to think and speak and write and eat and drink and dress as he did. Kazan, like his uncle, sees several freedoms that come alive to him every day, not a once-and-for-all freedom easily forgotten, casually relegated to museums and history books. And he’s that much more grateful for it.

Theatrical poster for "America America." (Warner Bros.)
Theatrical poster for "America America." (Warner Bros.)
You can watch “America, America” on Amazon Video, Vudu, and Apple TV.
America, AmericaDirector: Elia Kazan Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Linda Marsh, Paul Mann MPAA Rating: Not Rated Running Time: 2 hours, 54 minutes Release Date: Dec. 15, 1963 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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