I remember two movies produced during World War II – although there may have been others – in which, at a dramatic turning point in the plot, the familiar words from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” are featured. These words are engraved on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which welcomes newcomers to the United States arriving by sea: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
One of these movies is Hitchcock’s “Saboteur,” from 1942, in which a worker in a factory that manufactures airplanes is falsely accused of deliberate sabotage in his workplace. The film’s climax shows the real guilty person dangling by a thread from the head of the famed New York statue (Hitchcock liked hanging his characters over an abyss). The second one is “Hold Back the Dawn,” made by Mitchell Leisen in 1941, whose plot evokes disturbing associations to current events. The movie tells the story of a Romanian refugee who wishes to enter the United States by way of Mexico, an option that is closed off to him.
Donald Trump’s attempts to enforce new immigration laws in the U.S. are not only suffused with racism and damaging to human rights: They also assail America’s very foundations as a land of migrants. Those foundations, an integral part of a lofty national vision, are expressed in many popular art forms, including cinema. Indeed, from the earliest days of filmmaking, features and documentaries were made about newcomers seeking to enter the U.S. through the gateway of New York’s Ellis Island. This location was subsequently re-created, featuring in many films, including “Godfather II” made in 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola (which began with the young Vito Corleone’s arrival in America), as well as in the 2013 movie “The Immigrant,” directed by James Gray (whose earlier works, such as “Little Odessa” and “We Own the Night” and “Brighton Beach,” revolved around a community of migrants or their offspring).
Not only flesh-and-blood immigrants passed through Ellis Island, but also a tormented extra-terrestrial played by David Bowie in “The Man who Fell to Earth,” the 1976 movie by British director Nicolas Roeg. Last year Newt Scamander passed through the island in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” for which J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay.
As far back as 1917, Charlie Chaplin made a 22-minute silent movie called “The Immigrant.” Its first part shows the Tramp, Chaplin’s character, getting into trouble aboard the steamer taking him to America. The second part revolves around the difficulties he encounters after arriving in the Promised Land, when he tries to get a meal at a restaurant using a coin that falls from a waiter’s pocket and turns out to be counterfeit. This was the only movie in which the Tramp left the country in order to re-enter it, until Chaplin himself was expelled from the U.S. and returned in 1957. That year, he again dealt with immigration, from a very different perspective this time, in his penultimate movie “A King in New York,” filmed in England. In it Chaplin, never lacking in arrogance, plays a king who is exiled to New York and looks in amazement at America’s wondrous sights, as well as at its more grotesque aspects.
The two parts of Chaplin’s 1917 film reflected the way movies often portrayed the experience of immigrating to America. On one hand, they describe the precarious journey there, at the end of which the Promised Land is revealed to the protagonists. (For example, Elia Kazan’s 1963 film “America America,” recounting the story of the director’s uncle, ends after the main character endures many trials and tribulations and sees the unique symbol of the new land, the Statue of Liberty, which promises him a new life). On the other hand, these movies often show the many difficulties immigrants face upon arriving in their new homeland (such as in “Hester Street,” directed in 1975 by Joan Micklin Silver, one of the more notable films dealing with the distress of Jewish immigrants to the U.S.).
Gangster movies and Westerns
Not only American directors have dealt with the subject of the immigrant experience, but also directors in countries from which the newcomers came in droves to a country that promised to fulfill their dreams. In 2006, Italian director Emanuele Crialese directed “Golden Door,” about a Sicilian family’s journey to America in the early 20th century. Most of the movie takes place on the crowded vessel making the crossing. In 2015 Irish director John Crowley directed a beautiful movie called “Brooklyn,” about a young woman in the early 1950s who has emigrated to America from Ireland. The power of Crowley’s film stems from the fact that he succeeds in conveying the sense of disconnectedness that any migration evokes. The protagonist, who has acclimated to life in America, is driven by certain circumstances to return to Ireland. Her subsequent vacillation over whether to stay put there or return to the U.S. confronts her with the realization that the homeland she left is no longer her home, while the country she mig
rated to does not yet serve that function – and may never do so.
The focus in cinema on the theme of immigrating to a country of migrants has conjured up two representative types of heroes – one carrying the burden of his origins on his shoulders, the other striving to fulfill the dream of becoming American. The two characters I’m referring to are the gangster and the hero in Westerns. The latter operates in the wilderness that preceded America’s urbanization and its domination by capitalism. The former operates within the American metropolis that has not fulfilled the promises it made. The Western protagonist acts to enforce law and order in the wilderness, to establish civilization there. The gangster acts in an urban reality that reflects the futility of such ambitions.
The hero of classic Western cinema, particularly in the early stages of this genre – which lasted until the middle of the last century – had no ethnic roots. His origins were obscure, he had no past. This is why so many of these films begin with the protagonist appearing as a tiny dot on the horizon, gradually coming closer until he can be seen clearly, as if he was just born on the screen, as an American. Only later, as this genre was fading, did the issue of immigration inform it as well, such as in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (1980). Its plot was inspired by the bloody battle between landowners and immigrants that took place in Wyoming in the late 19th century.
In contrast, the gangster was confined by his origins – whether Italian, Irish or Jewish – and these instilled the realization in him that his ability to fulfill the American dream lay in creating an alternative to this dream, which would position him outside the law, tripping him up in all the potholes that alternative dream offered, ultimately propelling him to his inevitable fate. Such was the paradigm established by the seminal gangster movies produced during the economic downturn of the 1930s, such as “Scarface” (the original 1932 version, by Howard Hawks), “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar.”
Those movies served as the basis for other gangster films produced throughout the history of American cinema, such as the “Godfather” movies and those influenced by them, as well as Brian de Palma’s 1983 remake of “Scarface.” Another noteworthy effort in this context is Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002) – a movie that seemed to combine all aspects of the ways in which immigration has been addressed in the cinema, by portraying gang wars in the city in the mid-1800s, when immigrants from different countries fought each other.
The innumerable movies dealing with migration to America have depicted triumph or loss. They have showed protagonists who became American or others who always carried an immigrant label around their necks. Even if these movies represented only one facet of this genre, their basis was always the vision of the Founding Fathers, who saw the country as welcoming everyone, as a place in which all are equal when it comes to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Will the current president’s attempt to trample this vision allow the its echoes to dissipate and sink into the abyss of oblivion? Dealing with immigration gave American films some heft. Only time will tell if the country and the way it is represented in films will begin to crack.