I was just starting to drive and went to the movies with a friend to pick up girls (and to watch the movie). Since these were the days before the internet and even before Siskel and Ebert, we often ended up in movies that were considerably different from what was promised in the title. Now my friend, despite looking like a cross between Richard Fariña and Andre the Giant, was the illegitimate offspring of a rodeo champion and one of my mother’s erstwhile friends. Actually, as I close my eyes and remember, he looked a lot like Abbey Hoffmann. So when the movie playing was America, America, being an overt red-neck hayseed, he jumped in my old Chevy one Friday and we landed in the Helix Theater for popcorn, a little necking with unaccompanied girls, and a rip-roaring jingoistic adventure (maybe even starring John Wayne).
Boy were we fooled. First, even though I got my hand all the way up to the inner thigh of the girl I sat next to before the cartoons were over, the movie came on and it was in Black & White and about the Armenian genocide. Note that I only got half way up her thigh because the damned movie was so good—so interesting—that I retreated and focused on the action on the screen, ignoring my earlier promising conquest.
Some time later I was actively rooting for America, America to win the Academy Award for best picture of the year. It should have won but this was a tough year for me since I loved Tom Jones (even, as they say, when the book was better), and the masterful Hud (which was better than the book for reasons I have stated elsewhere).
So in this, the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (listen to the Pope, not the American politicians), what do I find but an excellent article by Peter Balakian on America, America, which I definitely recommend everyone go over to read in its entirety. But just to whet your appetite:
In the era before the phenomenon of the human rights film—a genre that seems to have begun in the 1980s with “Gandhi” (1982) and “The Killing Fields” (1985), and would see a proliferation of such films by the first decade of the 21st century including “Rabbit Proof Fence,” “The Pianist, “ “Ararat,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Last King of Scotland”– few films dealt with the complex regions of human rights histories in foreign countries. I’m excluding, of course, the war film, a steady genre since the 1920s, accelerating in the 1940s with films about fighting the Nazis.
But there was at least one exception—Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning “America America,” which became one of the most daring human rights films in cinema history. In it, Kazan brought the plight of the Armenians and Greeks—the major Christian minorities in Turkey– at the turn of the 20th century into a sharp and dark focus, and he depicted the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in an unprecedented way.
For a film that was a runner-up for best picture of 1963 and best screen adaptation and won an Oscar for art direction, it’s odd how little known the film is. And, for a film that dramatically depicted the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Sultan on a big Hollywood screen, it has been oddly overlooked or misunderstood by film critics, scholars and popular audiences — even those with a deep interest in human rights and this particular history.
Films fall off the radar all the time, for many reasons. But at this centennial of the Armenian Genocide, it’s a moment to take another look at the film Kazan called his own favorite, and which the Kazan scholar and film critic Foster Hirsch has called an “American masterpiece.” …
Kazan’s explorations of history and corruption, of human violence and resilience, were insignias of some of his greatest films. “A Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) was a daring exposé of anti-Semitism in American culture; “On the Waterfront” (1954) was a story of an individual’s heroic resistance to mob corruption and labor union struggles among the dockworkers; “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) was a dark portrait of a megalomaniac con artist and his manipulation of mass media and advertising culture, and the soulless terror of that culture. But “America America” took Kazan’s passion for probing institutions of human violence to a new place and a new historical reach.
A hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, Kazan’s favorite film takes us into the complexities of history as few films have. His aesthetically inventive depiction of the struggle of the Greeks and Armenians of Turkey at a crucial point in the history of the Middle East did something new in the history of cinema. I wonder if viewers of the Oscars in 1963 who were captivated, as I was, by Albert Finney in the bawdy picaresque tale of “Tom Jones” (which won the Oscar for best picture over “America, America”) understood what the film was about.