02 November 2014

After 50 years, ‘Zorba the Greek’
continues to challenge some myths

Zorba the Greek … the film was released 50 years ago in December 1964

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Crete this summer, staying in Rethymnon, an old Venetian town on the north coast that for years has been as close as I get to being at home in Greece.

There was time for walking on the beach, swimming in the sea, long lingering meals with friends, visits to galleries and exhibitions, trips into the mountains, time for prayer in churches and monasteries, and time to listen to some old but favourite stories.

A week in Rethymnon allowed the retelling of old stories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The best-known storyteller in modern Crete was Nikos Kazantzakis, author of the book that gave birth to Zorba the Greek, perhaps the best-loved Greek films. The book was first published in Greek in 1946 as Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas (Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά).

The Oscar-winning film was produced in 1964 and next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the joint British-Greek production. The film was directed by the Cypriot-born Michael Cacoyannis and the cast includes Anthony Quinn as Zorba, Alan Bates, Irene Papas and Lila Kedrova.

Half a century later, most people now know syrtáki as a typical Greek folkdance. But as we drove across the mountains to visit the Monastery of Preveli and some remote beaches on the south coast, we were told that syrtáki was invented by Anthony Quinn as the dance scene was being filmed on a beach near Chania. And while Zorba has become a stereotype of hardy Cretan men, Anthony Quinn had a mixed Irish and Mexican background.

With two old myths shattered, I returned to the original novel by Kazantzakis.

An old story

Traditional Greek musical instruments in a shop window in Rethymnon … Zorba is a gruff but boisterous peasant and musician (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Basil (Alan Bates) is a half-English, half-Greek writer raised in England who returns to his father’s village in Crete to inherit some land and to restart an old mine. On the way, he meets Zorba, a gruff but boisterous peasant and musician.

When they arrive in Crete, they stay with Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), a French war widow, in her self-styled Hotel Ritz. Zorba wants to log trees in the local forest to fuel the mine, but the land is owned by a nearby monastery. He visits the monks and gets them drunk. Later, on the beach, he begins to dance in a way that mesmerises Basil. Meanwhile, they also get to know a young widow (Irene Papas).

The harbour at Chania … this area provided the locations for much of the film (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Basil sends Zorba to buy cables and supplies in Chania – in the book the town is Iraklion or Candia, where Kazantzakis was born and is buried. There, Zorba squanders the money on drink and women. When he returns, he rows with Basil and a local man who overhears the content of their conversation drowns himself in the sea. At the funeral, the villagers blame the young widow for his death, and despite the best efforts of Basil and Zorba, she is murdered by the young man’s father.

When Madame Hortense contracts pneumonia, word spreads that “the foreigner” is dying. The poor villagers crowd around her hotel, planning to steal her few possessions, and when she dies the house is ransacked and stripped bare. But she is refused a funeral because of her religion: “There will be no funeral. She was a Frank, she crossed herself with four fingers. The priest will not bury her like everybody else.”

Zorba eventually builds his machine to take timber down the hill and it is blessed by the priests. But all his efforts to make it work turn to disaster and everything is wrecked.

The film ends with the spine-tingling "teach me to dance" sequence, the two men alone together on the beach, realising that although life’s dance can be learned along many different paths, sometimes the destination is the same, no matter what route is chosen. And they dance syrtáki together on the beach.

The myth about syrtáki

Zorba and Basil dance syrtáki on the beach … but the dance is Anthony Quinn’s own invention

Zorba the Greek was filmed on location in Crete, mainly in Chania and the surrounding area. The score, written by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis who is from Chania, has remained popular ever since.

It was made on a tight budget of $783,000, but grossed up to $23.5 million worldwide, making it a commercial success and one of the top earning films of 1964. It won three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Lila Kedrova), Best Art Direction, Black-and-White (Vassilis Photopoulos) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Walter Lassally).

On our way to Preveli on the south coast, we were told the story of syrtaki (συρτάκι), the dance Giorgos Provias choreographed for the film. Many think it is the archetypal Greek folkdance, and it is danced in countless restaurants, tavernas and resorts during the holiday season. But it is not a traditional Greek folkdance, and instead is a mixture of the slow and fast versions of a dance known as hasapiko.

The music was composed by Theodorakis, but the movements were contrived on location by Anthony Quinn. Superstitious actors wish each other well on stage with the greeting, “Break a leg.” Quinn had actually broken a bone in his foot on location, yet remained determined to continue filming. He improvised unexpectedly by mixing the slow and fast versions of hasapiko.

When he was asked by the production team what he was dancing, he replied: “Syrtáki.” His reply played on a Greek word for dragging, for Quinn should have been hopping when he was dragging his leg. No-one imagined that half a century on, syrtáki would be a popular Greek dance.

Syrtáki is danced in a line or circle, with dancers holding their hands on the neighbours’ shoulders. The dance begins with slower, smoother actions, gradually transforming into faster, vivid ones, often including hops and leaps. The Guinness World Record was set in 2012 by 5,614 people dancing syrtáki for five minutes in Volos.

As for Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), who was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico, denied being the son of an “Irish adventurer.” He said his mother Nellie had Aztec ancestors, while his father, Frank Quinn, was the Mexican-born son of an Irish immigrant and once rode with Pancho Villa.

A writer’s inner conflicts

The grave of Kazantzakis looks out across Iraklion towards the Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The adventurous Zorba is the antithesis of the bookish Basil. Zorba is a potential symbol of freedom in Basil’s quest to find freedom. In Zorba’s view, only people who want to be free are truly human.

In many ways, the conflicts that unfold in the book provide a way for Kazantzakis to work through his own inner conflicts. At one time he had rejected Christianity and sought fulfilment in Buddhism and other philosophies. But he returned to Christianity and later wrote powerful novels about the sufferings of persecuted Christians in Asia Minor and about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

For Zorba, the journey is more important than the destination. He claims to be an atheist, yet realises that Christianity is central to the villagers’ way of life. He tells Basil: “The highest point a man can attain is … Sacred Awe!”

The grave of Nikos Kazantzakis in Crete has a simple epitaph: “I hope for nothing, I fear for nothing, I am free” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As Basil sets out for Crete, he wants to rid himself of the Buddha and abstract thinking. He finishes writing a book or paper on Buddha only to realise that he has exorcised the Buddha within. Kazantzakis eventually abandoned his own experiments with Buddhism, and despite strong criticism of his writings, he received an Orthodox funeral in Crete, where was buried on the bastion above Iraklion, looking out to the sea. The simple epitaph on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing, I fear for nothing, I am free.”

Kazantzakis prefaces his autobiographical novel Report to Greco with a prayer: “Three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers: 1, I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot. 2, Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break. 3, Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!”

Icons and the True Cross

The Monastery of Preveli is celebrated in Greek lore, literature and movies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery is built on a hill looking out to the Libyan Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Zorba, the monastery has a treasured icon whose name changes from Our Lady of Mercy to Our Lady of Revenge, and Zorba also tells a story in which his grandfather takes a piece of wood and claims it is part of the True Cross.

I was reminded of these episodes later that morning when we arrived at the Monastery of Preveli. The monastery is famed for its role in struggles against both the Turks and the Germans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is celebrated in Greek lore, literature and movies for its part in helping allied soldiers escape Crete during World War II.

The Monks of Preveli are proud of their role in revolutions and resistance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Preveli, 37 km south of Rethymnion, is not one but two monasteries, with two sets of buildings. The Lower Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, is now deserted and fenced off. It is another 3 km to the Upper Monastery, dedicated to Saint John the Theologian.

During the Turkish occupation of Crete, Abbot Ephrem secured the monastery’s privileges and estates through the protection of the Patriarchate. As a sign of its new status, he returned from Constantinople with a Cross containing a relic of the True Cross that remains the most revered relic in Preveli.

The monks in Preveli were actively involved in successive revolutions that secured Crete’s autonomy in 1896, followed by political union with Greece a century ago in 1913.

During the German occupation of Crete in World War II, 5,000 Greek and allied troops who fought in the Battle of Crete in 1941 found themselves stranded on the island. Many found shelter in Preveli and the monks found hiding places for the others in neighbouring homes and farms.

The Abbot helped organise their escape to Egypt on two submarines from the Palm Beach below the monastery. In a revenge attack the Germans plundered the monastery, stealing its most precious relic. The icons and relics were rescued and are now in the monastery museum, while the Cross has a special place of honour in the main church or katholikon in the monastery.

A monk’s disbelief

The cells where the monks live on the north side of the monastery courtyard … today the community has dwindled in numbers to three (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Preveli remains a working monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastic community in Preveli has dwindled in numbers, with only three monks living in the monastery today. It is a crisis in monastic vocations hitting many monasteries throughout Greece. But I was warmly invited into the katholikon by one of the monks.

He quickly realised I was a priest and asked me which Church I was from and who my bishop was.

“Michael Jackson,” I replied, “he is my archbishop,” and I handed him my card.

“Michael Jackson?” he asked quizzically. And he filled the vaulted church with laughter that was heartier than Zorba’s. He then brought me around the church, pointing out the icons, the patriarch’s throne, and other treasures. He then put on his stole, took the treasured Cross from its shrine, and blessed me.

I felt blessed as I left for the Palm Beach on the shoreline below.

The monk who opened the katholikon or main church filled the place with laughter before offering his blessing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The palm forest below the monastery and beside the beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is a Lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the November 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

The beach at Preveli below the monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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