“Life. Lust. Love. Zorba.”
I first remember seeing Anthony Quinn in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), then in J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), and as a bit role villain in the Hope/Crosby flick, Road to Morocco (1942, and my personal favorite of the Road series). Renowned for his scene-stealing exuberance—and what many would dub “overacting”—Quinn made a living out of being larger than life. Appearing in such films as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956), and Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) to name only a few, the Mexican-born actor, Anthony Quinn, was a performer to be reckoned with.
Although I find all of his performances fun and exciting, I have chosen to highlight one of my favorites. Mihalis Kakogiannis’ 1964 character study, Zorba the Greek (aka Alexis Zorba), is a bewitching cinematic experience. Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote the amazing Last Temptation of Christ), Zorba the Greek is at once enigmatic and spellbinding. It is also the starring role of Zorba that Anthony Quinn was born to play.
A slightly uptight British bookworm, Basil (Alan Bates from Women in Love and Gosford Park), discovers he has an inheritance on the island of Crete. On the boat to Crete he meets the middle-aged ball of energy, Alexis Zorba (Quinn). Zorba has a zest for life that is so potent and boisterous that Basil feels they have nothing in common, but he takes him on as friend and assistant. Their unlikely friendship (despite frequent ideological differences) proves quite hardy throughout the trials and heartbreaks they face together.
The inhabitants of the backwater Greek town where Basil now lives are quite peculiar and occasionally quite bloodthirsty, but Zorba holds Basil’s hand and guides him through the troubles of life and shows him that wherever there is sorrow, there is room for rejoicing. Eventually Basil breaks out of his shell, but as Zorba will teach him, living life to the fullest has its price too. The message Zorba is trying to convey is not one of lifestyle, but one of attitude. Zorba’s cracked wisdom and childish optimism prove quite infectious to not only the characters within the film world, but to moviegoers as well.
Perhaps what struck me most of all when I first saw this movie was the characterization of the village. It is at once warm and welcoming, but there is an undercurrent of suspicion and a history of closed-mindedness (Zorba is somewhat excluded from this circle). Old ladies wait at the bedside of a dying woman like vultures ready to snatch her belongings as soon as she kicks the bucket. There are village customs that seem charming and then some that are barbaric. Sometimes, the way the village conceals some of its feelings and cruelly manifests others reminded me of a Greek Bad Day at Black Rock.
Zorba is as much an oddball to the townsfolk as he is to Basil. His cavalier attitudes represent the purest innocence the little Greek village has to offer. While many are beaten by tragedy and suffering, Zorba takes his sorrows and dances with them. He’s not a perfect character either. He has many faults, but that is one more reason we love him and why Basil is reluctant to see him as an equal.
Composer Mikis Theodorakis—the brilliant composer for two other great films; Costa Gravas’ Z (1969) and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973)—weaves a truly hypnotic score and Oscars deservingly went to Walter Lassally and Vassilis Photopoulis for gorgeous cinematography and art direction. Russian actress Lila Kedrova also received an Oscar for her supporting role as an eccentric French woman trying to retain her youth and dignity in the xenophobic Greek town. Zorba the Greek was also nominated for best screenplay, best director, best picture, and Anthony Quinn was nominated for best actor (but lost to Rex Harrison in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady). Alan Bates plays a good stoic more concerned with keeping up appearances and remaining a spectator on the world rather than a participant. Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) gives a tremendous performance in a silent supporting role as the ill-fated object of everyone’s desires. In many ways Zorba the Greek is similar to E. M. Forster’s novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, which juxtaposes uptight British pretensions against wilder more passionate and spontaneous lifestyles of a small Italian village.
In short, Zorba the Greek is a masterpiece. A brilliant and ageless tale with some very fine performances, a great look, and a truly inspiring outlook on life. For fans of the great Anthony Quinn (and dare I say, movies in general) this is a must-see. I hope you check it out and experience the joy that is Alexis Zorba.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 10, 1009.