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Zorba the Greek (film)

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Zorba the Greek
Original film poster
Directed byMichael Cacoyannis
Screenplay byMichael Cacoyannis
Based onZorba the Greek
1946 novel
by Nikos Kazantzakis
Produced byMichael Cacoyannis
CinematographyWalter Lassally
Edited byMichael Cacoyannis
Music byMikis Theodorakis
Distributed by20th Century Fox
International Classics[1]
Release dates
  • 14 December 1964 (1964-12-14) (Greece)
  • 17 December 1964 (1964-12-17) (New York City)[1]
Running time
142 minutes[3]
  • United States[2]
  • Greece
  • English
  • Greek
Box office$23.5 million

Zorba the Greek (Greek: Αλέξης Ζορμπάς, Alexis Zorbas) is a 1964 drama film written, produced, edited, and directed by Greek Cypriot filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis. It stars Anthony Quinn as Zorba, an earthy and boisterous Cretan peasant, and Alan Bates as Basil, the buttoned-up young intellectual he befriends. The cast also includes Lila Kedrova, Irene Papas, and Sotiris Moustakas. The musical score was composed by Mikis Theodorakis. The film is based on the 1946 novel The Life And Times Of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis.

It centers on Zorba and Basil's misadventures in trying to build a lignite mine through an impoverished Cretan village, as their polar different personalities lead them into affairs and schemes that have disastrous results, culminating in the village's evacuation by its populace. Much of the film's interactions focus on the lead characters' views and attitudes, culminating in the final scene where they dance joyfully before parting ways.

Though the film has elements of comedy, and Kazantzakis's anti-hero Zorba has been generally understood as a 'life-affirming' personality (faithfully reproduced in Cacoyannis's screenplay). It features a gruesome femicide, and Zorba's cynical, egotistical and manipulative personality combined with his determined optimism is explicitly shown to be a response to, and in defiance of, the cruelties and vicissitudes of life.

Produced in Greece for under $1 million, Zorba was a considerable critical and commercial success, grossing over nine times its production budget at the U.S. box office alone. At the 37th Academy Awards, the film won awards for Best Supporting Actress (Kedrova), Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Other nominations included Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Anthony Quinn, whose performance has been cited as one of the most iconic in film history,[6][7] and which spawned the folk dance known as the sirtaki. The film and its source novel were later adapted into a Tony-winning stage musical, in which Cacoyannis, Quinn, and Kedrova all participated.





Basil is a staid, somewhat buttoned-up, middle-class Greek-British writer raised in the United Kingdom. While at the Athens port of Piraeus waiting to catch a ferry to Crete he meets a middle-aged peasant and musician named Zorba who carries only a santouri in a case, in contrast to Basil's large quantity of luggage, including cases of books. Basil explains to Zorba that he is travelling to a Cretan village where he owns some land with the intention of re-opening a lignite mine and perhaps curing his writer's block. Zorba has already related that he has experience as a miner and inveigles himself a position as Basil's foreman and factotum.

When they arrive at the Cretan village they are greeted enthusiastically by the impoverished populace. They lodge initially with an elderly French former cabaret dancer named Madame Hortense in her self-styled "Hotel Ritz". Hortense relates her a glamorous and exotic past as a courtesan among the competing Mediterranean powers, hinting that she was the lover of an Italian Admiral called Cannovara (after whom she has named her pet parrot). Zorba tries to persuade Basil to enter into a relationship with Madame Hortense, but he is reluctant so Zorba, with an eye on the main chance, seizes the opportunity, somewhat cynically exercising his considerable charm on the lonely woman.

Zorba admits to Basil that he has a chequered past, having been guilty of rape and murder as a soldier, his excuse being that they were 'only' Bulgarians and Turks. He asserts that now, however, he rejects nationalism and bears no-one any grudges. He also shows Basil his battle wounds, 'all in front' (an oblique reference to Alexander the Great).

Over the next few days, Basil and Zorba attempt to work the old lignite mine, but it collapses and Zorba narrowly avoids injury. Zorba then has an idea to use the forest in the nearby mountains to source lumber to make new pit-props to replace the rotten timbers of the mine. The land is owned by a monastery. Zorba tricks the monks into believing that a miracle has occurred, as part of a ploy to get them to give up the timber. Exultant, when he gets home he breaks spontaneously into a dance, the so-called 'butcher's dance' or sirtaki in a scene which contrasts his exultant egotism with Basil's nervous inhibition.

Zorba designs a system by which tree-trunks can be sent down the mountain suspended from a wire.

Among the other residents is a young and attractive widowed woman who is resented and hated by the villagers for not remarrying. A young local boy, the son of one of the more important peasants, is madly in love with her, but she has spurned him repeatedly. One rainy afternoon, Basil offers her his umbrella, which she reluctantly takes. Zorba, who increasingly treats his 'Boss' as a pupil or nephew, knowingly suggests that she is attracted to him, but Basil, ever shy, refuses to pursue her.

To get supplies to build the zip-wire to bring the timbers down the mountain, Basil gives Zorba some money and sends him to the large port of Chania to buy cable and other supplies. But in Chania Zorba gets drunk, visits at a cabaret, and spends money on presents and on drinking champagne with a cabaret dancer/hospitality girl with whom he spends the night. He also has his hair dyed as a symbol of his rediscovered youth and potency. In a letter to Basil, he details his exploits. Angered by Zorba's irresponsibility and the squandering of his money, Basil untruthfully tells Madame Hortense, who is smitten with Zorba but feels abandoned, that Zorba intends to marry her upon his return, upon hearing which she is ecstatic. Meanwhile, the Widow returns Basil's umbrella by way of Mimithos, the village idiot.

Basil, after much agonising, and untypically unshaven and perhaps drunk, goes to the Widow's house. She lets him in but then she sheds some tears. Embarrassed, he decides to leave but she stops him and they spend the night together. However, their assignation has been observed by the jealous men of the village.

When Zorba eventually returns with the supplies and gifts he is surprised and angered to hear of Basil's lie to Madame Hortense. He also asks Basil about his whereabouts the night before. The brief encounter comes at a great cost. Word spreads of Basil's visit to the Widow and the men of the village, to make trouble, tell the youth who is in love with her, whereupon he drowns himself. When the widow attempts to attend the funeral, she is blocked from entering the church by the youth's father. The villagers blame her for the boy's suicide, though the clear implication is that she has been condemned for on the one hand being sexually active after the death of her husband and on the other rejecting the men of the village, personified by the boy. Some of the men of the village corral her outside the church and begin to stone her, watched and encouraged by the villagers. Basil, unable to push through the crowd to intervene, sends Mimithos to fetch Zorba. Zorba arrives just as the villager who had maliciously informed the boy of Basil's tryst is about to kill the widow with his knife - with the explicit approval of the boy's father who is watching on. Zorba overpowers the younger man and disarms him but, thinking that the situation is under control, when he asks the widow to follow him and turns to go, the dead boy's father pulls his knife and cuts the widow's throat himself. The villagers close ranks around the father and his accomplices, shielding them as they all disperse, leaving only the outsiders, Basil, Zorba, and the idiot Mimithos, who is distraught. Basil laments his inability to intervene, and Zorba angrily laments the meaninglessness of the widow's death and of all deaths. Neither of them blames the villagers explicitly or remark on the barbarity of the widow's murder. The film cuts to a scene in which Basil, Zorba and the villagers construct the zip-wire system for the timber, to the accompaniment of light-hearted music on the soundtrack.

On a rainy day, Basil and Zorba come home and find Madame Hortense waiting. She expresses anger at Zorba for making no progress on the wedding. Zorba conjures up a story that he had ordered a white satin wedding dress, lined with pearls and adorned with real gold. Madame Hortense presents two golden rings she had made and proposes their immediate engagement. Zorba tries to stall, but eventually agrees with gusto, to Basil's surprise.

Some time later, Madame Hortense contracts pneumonia and is seen on her deathbed. Zorba stays by her side, along with Basil. Meanwhile, word spreads that "the foreigner" is dying, and since she has no heirs, the State will take her possessions and money. The poor villagers crowd around her hotel, impatiently waiting for her demise so they can steal her belongings. As two old ladies enter her room and gaze expectantly at her, other women try to enter, but Zorba manages to fight them off. At the instant of her death, the women re-enter Madame Hortense's bedroom en masse to steal her valued possessions. Zorba leaves with a sigh, as the hotel is ransacked and stripped bare by the shrieking and excited villagers. When Zorba returns to Madame Hortense's bedroom, the room is barren apart from her bed (where she lies) and the parrot in her cage. Zorba takes the birdcage with him.

Finally, Zorba's elaborate contraption to transport timber down the hill is complete. A festive ceremony is held, including lamb roasting on a spit and a barrel of wine, and all the villagers attend. After a blessing from the priests, Zorba signals by firing a rifle in the air and log is sent hurtling down the zip line but at excessive speed, destroying the log itself and slightly damaging part of the contraption. Zorba pretends to be unconcerned and gives orders for a second log to be sent down. This one also comes down too quickly and overshoots straight into the sea. By now the villagers and priests have grown fearful and head for cover. Zorba remains unfazed and signals for the third log, which accelerates with such violence that it destroys the entire contraption creating havoc among the crowd. The villagers and monks flee in terror, leaving only Basil and Zorba amidst the wreckage.

They sit by the shore to eat the roasted lamb and drink the wine alone. Zorba pretends to tell the future from a lamb bone, saying that he foresees a great journey to a big city. He asks Basil when he plans to leave, and Basil replies that he will go in a few days. Zorba tells Basil that the one thing he (Basil) is missing he is the element of 'madness' which enables a man to 'break free' (the implication being, free from circumstance, responsibility, care). They begin to laugh hysterically at the catastrophic outcome of their scheme and the effect on the villagers. Basil asks Zorba to teach him to dance, and the film ends with both men enthusiastically dancing the sirtaki on the deserted shore.



The film was shot in black and white on location on the Greek island of Crete. Specific locations featured include the city of Chania, the village of Kokkino Chorio in the Apokoronas region and Stavros Beach in the Akrotiri peninsula. The scene in which Quinn's character dances the Sirtaki was filmed on the beach of the village of Stavros.[9]

Simone Signoret began filming the role of Madame Hortense; Lila Kedrova replaced her early in the production.[10]



Box office


The film was a smash hit. Produced on a budget of only $783,000,[4] it grossed $9 million at the U.S. box office,[11] earning $4.4 million in U.S. theatrical rentals.[12] At the worldwide box office, the film earned $9.4 million in rentals,[4] placing the worldwide gross between $18.8 million to $23.5 million. It was the 17th highest-grossing film of 1964.

According to Fox Records, the film needed to earn $3,000,000 in rentals to break even and made $9,400,000.[13] By September 1970 it earned the studio an estimated profit of $2,565,000.[5]

Critical response


Reviews of the film were generally positive, with Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova receiving numerous accolades for their performances, although a few critics found fault with the screenplay. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times lauded Quinn for a "brilliant performance" and Kedrova for her "brilliantly realized" character, citing the only real weakness of the film as a lack of "significant conflict to prove its dominant character. Zorba is powerful and provocative, but nobody gets in his way."[14] Margaret Harford of the Los Angeles Times declared that the film would "stand among the year's best motion pictures, an unusual, engrossing effort" with spots both "outrageously funny" and "painfully sad and tragic."[15]

Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post deemed it "a memorable picture" with a "bravura performance" from Quinn, adding that "Lila Kedrova as the dying Mme Hortense is spectacularly touching."[16] Variety found the film excessively long (at around two hours and thirty minutes) and overstuffed, writing that Cacoyannis's screenplay was "packed with incidents of varying moods, so packed, in fact, that some of the more important ones cannot be developed fully."[17] Brendan Gill of The New Yorker wrote that Cacoyannis had directed the film with "enormous verve" but had written a "not very tidy, not very plausible screenplay." Gill particularly praised Kedrova's performance and thought that she "comes within an ace of stealing the picture from Quinn."[18] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that the film began well, but by the time the characters went to Crete "the pace slows to a crawl, and the narrative line becomes blurred in a series of unrelated incidents of doubtful significance." The review concluded that for all its length, "the film never gets down to a clear statement of its theme, or comes within measuring the distance of its vast pretensions."[19]

The film has an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[20] On both sides of the Atlantic, Zorba was applauded and Quinn came in for the best reviews. He was lauded as Zorba, along with the other stars, including Greek-born Papas, who worked with Quinn on The Guns of Navarone.

Awards and nominations

Award Category[21] Nominee Result
Academy Award Best Picture Michael Cacoyannis Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Nominated
Best Actor Anthony Quinn Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Lila Kedrova Won
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White) Vassilis Photopoulos Won
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) Walter Lassally Won
BAFTA Award Best Film from any Source Michael Cacoyannis Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Anthony Quinn Nominated
Best Foreign Actress Lila Kedrova Nominated
Golden Globe Award Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Director Michael Cacoyannis Nominated
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Anthony Quinn Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Lila Kedrova Nominated
Best Original Score Mikis Theodorakis Nominated
Grammy Award Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media Nominated
National Board of Review Top Ten Films Won
Best Actor Anthony Quinn Won



The Academy Film Archive preserved Zorba the Greek in 2004.[22]


In a January 15, 1968 Peanuts comic strip, Snoopy is happily dancing atop of his doghouse with Lucy looking on until the final panel where she comments: "Zorba the Greek, you aren't!".[23]

In a July 16, 1991 Big Nate comic strip, Nate mistakes the name of the movie as "Zorba the Geek".[24]

See also



  1. ^ a b "Zorba the Greek - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  2. ^ "AFI|Catalog". catalog.afi.com. Retrieved 20 March 2022.
  3. ^ "Zorba the Greek (X)". British Board of Film Classification. 12 January 1965. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
  4. ^ a b c Box Office Information for Zorba the Greek. IMDb. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  5. ^ a b Silverman p 259
  6. ^ Woolery, Valentine (6 May 2021). "The Greek Zorba: The most famous Greek character in cinema, played by a Mexican". SmallCapNews.co.uk. Retrieved 24 January 2022.
  7. ^ Kleiman, Dena (31 July 1986). "'ZORBA'S' LESSONS FOR ANTHONY QUINN". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 January 2022.
  8. ^ Thomas R. Lindlof (8 August 2008), Hollywood under siege, University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 978-0813173160
  9. ^ "Stavros on Crete and the famous beach where the film Alexis Zorba was shot". www.crete-guide.info. Retrieved 24 June 2021.
  10. ^ Osborne, Robert (1994). 65 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. London: Abbeville Press. p. 180. ISBN 1-55859-715-8.
  11. ^ Box Office Information for Zorba the Greek. The Numbers. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  12. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p. 229. See also "Big Rental Pictures of 1965", Variety, 5 January 1966 p. 6
  13. ^ Silverman, Stephen M (1988). The Fox that got away : the last days of the Zanuck dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. L. Stuart. p. 324. ISBN 9780818404856.
  14. ^ Crowther, Bosley (18 December 1964). "Screen: 'Zorba, the Greek' Is at Sutton". The New York Times: 25.
  15. ^ Harford, Margaret (December 18, 1964). "'Zorba' Fascinating Tragicomedy". Los Angeles Times. Part V, p. 17.
  16. ^ Coe, Richard L. (11 February 1965). "Tony Quinn As Life Force". The Washington Post. p. C10.
  17. ^ "Film Reviews: Zorba the Greek". Variety: 6. 16 December 1964.
  18. ^ Gill, Brendan (19 December 1964). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. p. 151.
  19. ^ "Zorba The Greek". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 32 (375): 54. April 1965.
  20. ^ "Zorba the Greek", Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved 3 August 2018
  21. ^ "NY Times: Zorba the Greek". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2009. Archived from the original on 28 September 2009. Retrieved 25 December 2008.
  22. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  23. ^ "January 15, 1968-Peanuts". gocomics.com.
  24. ^ Peirce, Lincoln (16 July 1991). "Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce for July 16, 1991 | GoComics.com". GoComics. Retrieved 1 May 2023.