London–Could a movie be made today that depicts the Turkish burning of an Armenian church while congregants cower inside? Probably not, but one was 52 years ago.
It was called “America, America,” directed by Elia Kazan, who also made “On the Waterfront.”
The movie centers on the poignant adventures of a Greek youth who flees the oppression and poverty of provincial Turkey for New York. The story is set in the late 19th Century, and depicts a taste of sectarian horrors to come.
Among the vivid and disturbing scenes early in the film: the burning of an Armenian church with people inside by a mob directed by Ottoman authorities. A priest is set on fire outside. Kazan, cuts from the church burning scene to an image of a minaret. Later, the Greek youth stabs and kills Abdul, a thief, while he is praying to Allah.
I looked up the movie in response to the frenzied journalistic betting on which world leaders would or would not use the G-word, ‘genocide,’ to describe the massacre and displacement by Ottoman Turks of hundreds of thousands of Armenians between 1915 and 1917.
This month, the hundredth anniversary of the beginning, provided a chance to see where everyone stands on historical labeling.
Pope Francis called it “the first genocide of the 20th Century,” much to Turkey’s displeasure. The parliaments of Germany and the European Union passed a resolution declaring it genocide. France and about 20 other countries have done so in past years.
President Obama, reprising his customary wishy-washy statements on sectarian violence, declined, but called it “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.”
Curiously, when he was running for president in 2008, he objected to President Bush’s firing of a US ambassador to Turkey over using the G-word. He called “the Armenian Genocide…not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely-documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable.”
Back then, there were Armenian-American votes to be had. As president, he doesn’t want to offend Turkey, a NATO ally with whom he hopes to help bring down the Assad regime in Syria without putting in its place vicious Islamic jihadist rebels.
Historic truths of injustice are always painful and not infrequently denied against all evidence. (See: notions still at large that the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.)
Would it be the end of the world for Turkey not to acknowledge its past? Don’t think so. It would, however, demonstrate to a region that is rampant with sectarian strife genocide’s dangers and costs, no matter who is involved. The simple difficult message to get across: hands off civilians. That would be worth a Turkish gesture of historical recognition.
In any case, in today’s climate of tension and political correctness, don’t expect scenes as shown in “America, America” in a theater near you.
Here’s the movie, if you have about three-hours of time. It is about the yearnings of a desperate immigrant and his American dream.
This is a link to a 1919 silent feature movie called “Armenia Ravished.”