Inspired by the life of Kazan's uncle, Avraam Elia Kazantzoglou, the director uses little-known cast members, with the entire storyline revolving around the central performance of Greek actor Stathis Giallelis (born 1941), twenty-two years old at the time of production, who is in virtually every scene of the nearly three-hour movie.
The film begins in the late 1890s. Cappadocian Greek Stavros Topouzoglou (Giallelis), lives in an impoverished village below Mount Argaeus in Ottoman Turkey. Stavros witnesses the Hamidian massacres against Greek and Armenian Christians. The life of the Cappadocian Greeks and Armenians of Kayseri is depicted, including the traditional cliff cave dwellings in which Stavros' grandmother lives. Stavros is entrusted by his father with the family's financial resources in a mission of hope to the Turkish capital Constantinople (renamed Istanbul in 1930), where he is to work in the carpet business of his father's cousin (Harry Davis), although his own dream is to reach the faraway land of opportunity, America. His odyssey begins with a long voyage on a donkey and on foot through the impoverished towns and villages on the way to Constantinople. Due to his kind nature and naivete, he dissipates all the money and arrives at the cousin's home penniless. The older man is deeply disappointed at this turn of events since he was counting on the infusion of funds to rescue his failing enterprise. Nevertheless, he attempts to salvage the situation by proposing that Stavros marry a wealthy merchant's (Paul Mann) young daughter (Linda Marsh). Stavros realizes that such a marriage would mean the end of his American dream and adamantly refuses, abruptly leaving the angry cousin.
Now homeless on the streets of the capital, Stavros survives by eating discarded food and working at backbreaking and hazardous jobs. After nearly a year of scrimping and self-denial, he has some savings, but an encounter with an enticing beauty (Joanna Frank) leaves him, once again, penniless. Sinking even lower, he now finds himself living in an overcrowded subterranean hovel, which becomes a scene of chaos and bloodshed when it is attacked with gunfire by authorities purportedly searching for anarchists and revolutionaries. Severely injured in the mayhem, the unconscious Stavros is thrown among piles of dead bodies slated for disposal into the sea. He subsequently topples from the cart transporting the bodies and painfully makes his way to the cousin's residence. The relative takes pity on the young man and allows him to recover at his home. Deprived now of all resistance, Stavros agrees to marry his intended bride. Upon being questioned by her regarding his moodiness, however, he admits that he still plans to emigrate to America, using the dowry money to pay for his passage.
At this point Stavros becomes reacquainted with Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), a young Armenian, whom Stavros aided with food and clothing during his original voyage to Istanbul. Hohannes informs him that he is being sponsored to America by an employer seeking labor. Stavros manages to secure his own passage with the aid of the middle aged wife (Katherine Balfour) of wealthy Armenian-American businessman Artoon Kegabian (Robert H. Harris), a client of his prospective father-in-law. He tells his intended bride that he cannot marry her, and subsequently embarks on the voyage on board SS Kaiser Wilhelm.
There is, however, another major impediment— Stavros' shipboard affair with Mrs. Kegabian is discovered. Her enraged husband lodges a criminal complaint against Stavros, and rescinds his offer of a job in America, which will result in deportation back to Turkey. As everything looks bleak, however, the tubercular Hohannes exchanges documents with Stavros, allowing him to enter America in Hohannes' place.
With the climactic image of the Statue of Liberty as the boatload of immigrants docks in New York Harbor, Stavros puts his tribulations behind him, starting out as a shoeshine boy and gathering the pennies and dollars that will eventually bring his family to the land where their descendants, including Elia Kazan, will have the chance to fulfill their potential.
"And he did bring them. It took a number of years, but one by one, he brought them here. Except for his father. That old man died where he was born.Stathis Giallelis plays Stavros Topouzoglou
Frank Wolff plays Vartan Damadian
Harry Davis plays Isaac Topouzoglou
Elena Karam plays Vasso Topouzoglou
Estelle Hemsley plays Grandmother Topouzoglou
Gregory Rozakis plays Hohannes Gardashian
Lou Antonio plays Abdul
Salem Ludwig plays Odysseus Topouzoglou
John Marley plays Garabet
Joanna Frank plays Vartuhi
Paul Mann plays Aleko Sinnikoglou
Linda Marsh plays Thomna Sinnikoglou
Robert H. Harris plays Aratoon Kebabian
Katharine Balfour plays Sophia Kebabian
This film was made in Turkey and Greece. It was photographed by Haskell Wexler. It was edited by Dede Allen. The production designer was Gene Callahan. The costuming by Anna Hill Johnstone. The music was composed by Manos Hadjidakis. All under the management of Charles Maguire. And here are the actors: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Harry Davis, Elena Karam, Estelle Hemsley, Gregory Rozakis, Lou Antonio, Salem Ludwig, John Marley, Joanna Frank, Paul Mann, Linda Marsh, Robert Harris, Katharine Balfour".
Additional cast members are:Giorgos Foundas (uncredited)
Dimitris Nikolaidis (uncredited)
The production, hampered by loss of its original financial backers, on-location hostility from Turkish authorities and onlookers, as well as other problems, continued into 1963. Powerful elements within Turkey came to be convinced that the country's national institutions and historical perspective upon turn of the 20th century events would be unfavorably portrayed by the Greek director and, when Kazan decided to transfer the troubled production to Greece, customs officials confiscated the cans of what they considered to be finished film, but owing to a prescient switch of labels between exposed and unexposed product, the valuable cargo survived.
America America was filmed in 1.66:1 aspect ratio on 35-millimeter film and had its New York premiere on December 15, 1963. Kazan makes a voice-only introduction during the opening scenes, a short voice-only epilogue in the closing scene, and a voice-over recitation of the lead actors and technical personnel of the film. It was filmed on location at the Alfa Studios in Athens, Greece, as well in rural Greece, Istanbul, New York City, and at the Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood. Between summer 1964 and spring 1965, it was seen in virtually every major Western European city. Its VHS release came on November 28, 1994 and a French (region 2) DVD boxed set (with Kazan's Baby Doll and A Face in the Crowd was released on December 3, 2002). The film was finally released by Warner Bros. on DVD in the US on February 8, 2011.