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Film / Zorba the Greek

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"Life is trouble, only death is not; to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble."
Alexis Zorba

"God has a very big heart, but there is one sin he will not forgive! If a woman calls a man to his bed, and he will not go."
Alexis Zorba

Zorba the Greek was a 1964 film, starring Anthony Quinn in the titular role. The movie was based on a 1946 novel (of the same name) by Nikos Kazantzakis, and was later developed into a Broadway show after the movie's critical acclaim. Aside from Quinn, it also stars a number of actors who, while not familiar to American audiences, achieved significant success and fame in their native countries (Alan Bates in the United Kingdom, Irene Pappas and Sotiris Moustakas in Greece). The film was directed by Michael Cacoyannis, previously known for such film as Stella (1955) and Electra (1962).

The film centers on sober young half-Greek/half-English writer Basil (Alan Bates) and the extremely animated, boisterous and (sometimes frighteningly) jovial Zorba. The two initially meet as Basil, suffering from intense writer's block, elects to make the journey to the island of Crete, where his father owned a lignite mine and some land. Rough seas delay his ship and while he takes shelter, the eccentric Zorba enters from the rain. Very forward, Zorba asks to be allowed to come with Basil, citing his skill at mining and Basil, seeing the usefulness of a local, agrees.


Basil's mine is in an extremely poor village, and a long-marooned Frenchwoman (and former cabaret singer) runs the hotel where the two initially stay. As the mine begins to operate, Basil's own prim, bland personality and extreme self-restraint clash with the eccentric Zorba's dynamism. Zorba drinks, philanders and dances too much, but at the same time is an exceptionally fearless worker (especially useful in the crumbling mine.) Zorba constantly goads Basil to live his life, enjoy his youth, but is met with intense resistance. When a young, beautiful widow in the village is hounded by the village men for rejecting their advances, it is Zorba who defends her, and when she shows interest in Basil, it is Zorba who pushes Basil to pursue her.

Ultimately, the mine requires beams to reinforce the gallery, and the only timber available are from a forest owned by the mountain monastery. Zorba devises a plan (that involves intoxicating and befriending the monks, and an overhead cable to essentially zip-line the felled trees to the base of the mountain.) He asks Basil if he trusts him, and when he receives a positive, asks why. Basil replies, "because you're you." When Zorba warns his schemes could ruin him, Basil replies, "I'll take that chance." Encouraged, Zorba engages in a euphoric display of dance, working himself into a frenzy and eventually passing out in the sand. He reveals that, when his son died, he was unable to express the incredible sorrow he felt and began to dance. Those around him believed he had lost his mind but, as Zorba said, it was the only way to alleviate the pain.


Growing restless with his long-standing affair with the Madame Hortense (the frenchwoman), Zorba goes into town to purchase the materials while an increasingly anxious (and broke) Basil waits back at the mine/village. While Zorba is gone, he spends much of the money on booze and women, writing home to Basil about it. When Hortense, already thrice abandoned by men, asks what the letter says, Basil is forced to improvise on the spot and create an entirely different letter (thus breaking him of his writer's block.) Furthermore, lonely and isolated, Basil finally visits the widow at her remote home. Their romantic encounter is spotted by passers-by who relay the news to Mavrandoni's son, who promptly commits suicide in shame. The following morning, Zorba returns home with all the materials (at discount prices) and gifts for everyone. Soon after, on their way to church, the widow is isolated by a vengeful mob and attacked with stones and then knives. Zorba initially fights her attackers away, but as they try to leave, Mavrandoni kills her. Soon thereafter, Madame Hortense dies of influenza that she caught while waiting for Zorba to return. Despite his philandering, Zorba remains with her till her last breath, and after she dies, takes her parrot away as the villagers salvage all her belongings before the state can seize them.

Depressed, the two carry out their plan to bring timbers down the mountain. After gathering the entire village and monastery, they attempt to make the zip-line work. It fails twice, sending the monks delivering blessings diving into the river, while on the third time, the entire zip-line and all its support poles collapse. Watching the dust still settle and the villagers fleeing far into the distance, the two are left alone, where Zorba suddenly worries about the lamb on the spit burning. The two sit down, and after a brief chat, Zorba asks when Basil will return to England, and whether Basil is angry with him. Basil replies that he is not and after taking a long look at the ruins, turns to Zorba and asks, "Teach me to dance... will you?" Zorba is overjoyed at this request, and they begin to dance and laugh at their rather grim situation. The film ends with the two dancing alone on the beach by the ruins of the mine.


Zorba is a character obsessed with living life to its absolute fullest, whether it be labor, music, love or any number of things. The character, in many ways, has come to serve as an avatar for the sort of Early Modern Greek zeitgeist. Zorba is boisterous, heavy-drinking, philandering and prone to erratic work habits, but he is simultaneously fearless, bound to a strict code of chivalry, and does not let his tortured past show on the outside. During one outburst over his service in the Balkan Wars, it is revealed that he was wounded multiple times and committed a number of war-time atrocities in the name of his country. Simultaneously he is both a patriot, yet acutely aware of the arbitrary nature of ethnicity and has, in his age, given up judging people on such things.

The Real Zorba

The character Zorba from the novel is, allegedly, based on a real individual Kazantzakis encountered while travelling around remote, northern Greece.


The movie is decidedly better known than the original novel both in and outside Greece. Quinn, himself Mexican, was defined by the role in Greece to the point that, later in life, honorary citizenship was considered. It is Quinn's most critically acclaimed work, garnering him several nominations for multiple awards.

This novel and or/film contain examples of the following tropes:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Downplayed. Madame Hortense is not ugly and Zorba enjoys her company, but he is not in love with her and does not want to marry her, whereas Madame Hortense is deeply in love with him and dreams of a marriage. Since Zorba is a nice guy, he does not tell her the truth not to disappoint her.
  • Benevolent Boss: Basil cares for the miners. When there is an accident in the mine, he is happy that nobody was hurt and he sends the miners back home. He is also nice with Zorba and becomes his friend.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. Zorba shows up at the last minute to save the widow from the villagers. He seems to succeed, but finally Mavrandoni kills her.
  • British Stuffiness: Basil is half-Greek, but he was raised in England, hence his rigidity which contrasts with the Greeks, and with Zorba in particular.
  • Crapsack World: The village in Crete. Widows are harassed and might be killed if they sleep with strangers. When someone dies and has no family, all his belongings are immediately stolen. Non-orthodox people will not receive a proper funeral.
  • Damsel in Distress: The widow. Downplayed at first: she is harassed by the villagers who steal her goat. Zorba gives her the goat back. Played straight in the end: the villagers goes after her to kill her. Basil and Mimithos cannot help her, so Zorba has to intervene.
  • Dance Party Ending: Wonderfully bittersweet last scene of the film.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Zorba has lost his son. He was a soldier and he witnessed and committed atrocities.
  • Death by Sex: The widow is killed after having sex with Basil.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mavrandoni's son when he hears that the woman he loves has spent the night with Basil.
  • Due to the Dead: The evil villagers do not give Madame Hortense proper funerary rites, because she is a catholic. Basil is shocked about it. Subverted in the case of Zorba: even if he was very close to Madame Hortense and stayed with her until her last breath, he says it does not matter.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The widow is just called "the widow".
  • The Film of the Book: The 1964 film is based on a 1946 novel (of the same name) by Nikos Kazantzakis.
  • Gossipy Hens: Some villagers saw Basil visiting the widow. They immediately tell Mavrandoni's son.
  • Hidden Depths: Zorba is not just an exuberant funny guy. He has lost his son. He was a soldier and he witnessed and committed atrocities. He really cares for others, like Madame Hortense. His exuberant behaviour is just his personal way to cope with the hardships of life.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Mavrandoni's son is in love with the widow and she ignores him.
  • If You Die, I Call Your Stuff: Unusually Played for Drama. Even before Madame Hortense dies, the villagers are ready to steal her belongings. When she dies, they scramble for the pickings.
  • Intelligence = Isolation: Basil. This is particularly true when you see how he deals with the boat captain, Mavrandoni, Madame Hortense at first, and the widow.
  • Karma Houdini: Mavrandoni is not punished for the widow's murder.
  • Lady Drunk: Madame Hortense is an alcoholic, older woman.
  • Large Ham: Zorba is a very exuberant guy.
  • Loony Friends Improve Your Personality: Basil is very serious, he has difficulties to interact with other people. His interactions with the very eccentric Zorba bring him many problems and cost him a lot of money, but they build his character.
  • Love at First Sight: The widow falls in love immediately when she sees Basil. Zorba notices it.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Basil, the narrator, is a writer, an attribute for which Zorba often pokes fun at him.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Mavrandoni. It is a combination of the Greek words "Mavros" (Black) and "Antonis" (Anthony). The meaning being "Black Anthony". The word "Mavros" has some ominous connotations in Greek. While it can be used as a neutral term for people with black skin color or simply darker than usual, secondary meanings include: 1) "miserable, wretched, unfortunate", 2) "the one who brings misery to others", 3) "wicked, maleficent, malicious, malevolent" 4) "mournful, sad". Just check a decent Greek dictionary. It doesn't help that the black color is typically associated with death and funerals in Greece.
  • Odd Couple: Basil and Zorba are very different and they become friends.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: By golly, if Zorba and Basil are not this trope.
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: There is one for the completion of the zip-line. It ends in disaster.
  • Romancing the Widow: Basil hesitates a long time before charming the widow, who has fallen in love with him as soon as she saw him.
  • Sacrificial Lion: The widow. Her death makes clear that the village in Crete is a Crapsack World and that life in general is painful and unjust.
  • Spiteful Spit: When Zorba gives her back her goat, the widow spits in the room before leaving, to express her contempt for the villagers.
  • Standard Snippet: The music of the film tends to appear in whatever work depicts modern Greeks or Greek-Americans. The dance "sirtaki", created for the needs of the film, also turns up a lot.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: After the suicide of Mavrandoni's son, the villagers are angry and go after the widow.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Alexis Zorba is loosely based on George Zorbas (c. 1867-1942), a then-recently deceased friend of Kazantzakis. George tended to travel a lot in his life, mostly as a mine worker. Nikos Kazantzakis first met him in the monasteries of Mount Athos where George attempted to retire as a monk. Celibacy didn't exactly suit him and the two left together. Working together as miners for a few years.
  • Writer's Block: Basil suffers from writer's block.


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