Sunday, September 11, 2011

Zorba The Greek

 It is fitting that I follow my previous post about remakes with Zorba the Greek. As I done my background research on the film, I found many people suggesting that it should be remade. What?? I cried in utter dis-belief, how can anyone even contemplate that? That really is sacrilege and an example of poor judgement. The reasons given for it though are even more baffling.  The sole reason given is that the original was filmed in black and white!!! And yet as a B&W film it won two Oscars for its cinematography, Best Art Direction ( Black and White ), and Best Cinematography ( Black and White ).

 When you look at those two awards ( it was nominated for 7 Oscars in total ), it is just baffling that anyone could contemplate a remake just on its B&W cinematography. I mean I was immensely impressed with the cinematography, and didn't realise it was even nominated for any awards until doing some research. It is beautifully filmed and the awards are acknowledgement of this. It is one of so many things that make Zorba the Greek a truly great film.

 The film is based on a 1946 novel of the same name by Greek writer Niklos Kazantzakis. It is considered his 'magnum opus' and became well known world wide after the success of the 1964 film adaption. The film was directed by a Cypriot Michael Cacoyannis. I haven't been able to find out why it was filmed in B&W, but I wouldn't be surprised if was just to keep costs down. I mean when you look at the fact it was a British/Greek collaboration, and the almost mania from American studios to shut out foreign films, budget considerations would have been examined, with colour discarded as being too costly.

 The only sad thing about the choice of B&W, which I can accept, this is that the film was shot entirely on site in Crete. If in colour the sun bleached island would have filmed magnificently. But alas it wasn't, and the matter of a remake just because of its B&W cinematography should be dropped. For me, even though colour may have made the film more than what it is, a remake is an exercise in poor judgement. Why?? Because who in today's world of cinema could play Zorba?? And who could even come close to Anthony Quinn' performance, let alone have hopes of eclipsing his brilliant, Oscar nominated performance?? The answer is no-one. It is just another reason why a remake is just a load of nonsensical bullshit.

 It is funny because the whole cast is superb, and yet Anthony Quinn, even though his is the lead role, just dominates the proceedings. Not in a over bearing, egotistical way, but in sheer power of performance. I don't think many people really realise just how good an actor Anthony Quinn was. Remember this is a man who took over the role of Stanley Kowalski from a certain Marlon Brando, when he decided to give up the role in the stage version of A Streetcar Named  Desire. Quinn was brought in and played the role for two years between December 1947 and December 1949.

 Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Anthony Quinn became a naturalized American citizen in 1947, after living there since the age of 8. Besides being an actor, he was also an accomplished painter and writer. In 1952 he became the first person of Mexican descent to win any type of Oscar, his first of two. It is ironic that it was for playing a Mexican in Via Zapata! alongside Marlon Brando! He won his second Oscar in 1956 for Lust for Life, again for Best Supporting Actor. The 1950's were kind to Quinn, because he was nominated for Best Actor for I957's, Wild in the Wind. His last Oscar nomination of course came for Zorba the Greek, for which I think he was disgracefully robbed in favour of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

 He certainly had a long and distinuguised career. Over the years I have found certain actors deaths tend to stick in my mind, and I can remember his 2001 passing very clearly. I think it is because he starred in films I have always liked since boyhood ( of which two were of his most recognisable roles ). He was extremely well cast as the giant Greek guerrilla, Andrea in The Guns of Navarone, a great film in its day, and one I reviewed recently. And of course the Arab Auda abu Tayi in David Lean's masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, which again, I reviewed earlier this year. Without question he was a great actor, and yet I think he isn't as highly regarded as he should be.

 What makes Zorba the Greek so interesting as film is that it used a cast that didn't speak English as a first language. Only Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates did. Lila Kedrova, who played Madame Hortense, was of Russian birth and spent most of her life in France. Zorba the Greek was her very first English language film, and she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance! In an aside, both she and Quinn went on to re-prise their respective roles in a 1983 Zorba stage musical ( both put in 362 performances during its run ). 

 Irene Papas was a Greek actress who, in a career than spanned more than 50 years, starred in over 70 films. No less an actress than a certain Katherine Hepburn, who she starred alongside in The Trojan Women, said of her, she was " one of the best actresses in the history of cinema". She had previously starred alongside Quinn in The Guns of Navarone and in Zorba the Greek. She puts in a unique performance in that her character never once speaks throughout the whole film. And yet even without speaking it is a powerful performance of a widow who the villagers despise because she won't remarry, spurning the attentions of a local boy who is infatuated with her.

 Alan Bates' character is supposedly half English half Greek, but he doesn't look to have any Greek in him at all. No matter really as it must have difficult to find an actor with the experience needed to act alongside Quinn in full flight. Bates though is extremely good as Basil, a conservative writer who comes out to Crete hoping to cure his writers block, and in the process make money from the lignite mine on his dead father's land. In the process he finds out about a new aspect of life. By the end of the film Zorba's infectious zest for life rubs off onto him.

 Even though the film is about a man who loves life, it is also a bittersweet tale. It bounces between the glories of life, seen in Zorba, and the tragedies. All is seen in the murder of the widow, just because the young boy kills himself when he is told the Englishman Basil, has spent the night with her. But it goes further as we see the death of Madame Hortense from pneumonia just after Zorba reluctantly married her. Of course the scene ends with him and Basil walking off, with the villagers ransacking the house before the 'state' can take over, due to her having no heirs. It is a poignant scene and quite sobering.

 But ultimately the film is all about Zorba, and his ability to squeeze every moment out of life. He looks for the positives while dealing with the negatives. He is gruff, ever enthusiastic, gregarious, and with an insatiable lust for life. As Zorba, Anthony Quinn puts in a most memorable performance. Again I just can't believe Rex Harrison won Best Actor over Quinn. I love how Zorba says to Basil that a man needs a bit of madness or else he never feels free. It takes time but Zorba's love of life sees Basil's own views challenged.

 Zorba the Greek  is an unusual film for the 1960's. It wasn't mainstream because it is directed by a Cypriot, and is a English/Greek collaboration. But more than that it used a cast that was predominantly Cretan, which must have presented enormous challenges for the director. The peasants in the film are actual Cretans and not extras. The fact much of the film is English dialogue, while most of the cast didn't speak English, is a fascinating backdrop  as well.

 But more than anything it is a wonderful look at this thing we all call life, and how each and everyone of us deals with the cards we are dealt. For Basil life is about order, Madame Hortense it is about loss and disappointment, whilst for Zorba each day is a new adventure, with something else to discover and enthuse over. But it juxtaposes this against some bitterness and resentment, which only strengthens Zorba's views that life is too be lived, because it so short. Oh I would love to be like Zorba and view life in such a fashion!!

 This is wonderful film that I highly, highly recommend it. Watch it for a stunning performance by Anthony Quinn, because believe me, this was a man who could seriously ACT! The film was nominated for 7 Oscars, so in its day it didn't go unnoticed. ( The nominations were for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Art Direction B & W, and Best Cinematography B & W ). Quinn for me was incredibly robbed of the Best Actor Oscar, an award he was nominated for twice, but never received. Interestingly this being a 1964 the three B words bloody, bastard, and breast were used. This was almost unheard of back then. But somehow coming from Zorba they weren't so bad I suppose!

 A bittersweet tale about the trials and tribulations of life. Through Zorba, he says to us keep your chin up, and live life to the fullest, because it is all too short. He's a great character that is hard not to laugh at and with!! ( IMDB has this with only 7.7 stars. It may be quibbling but for me this is at least an 8 to 8.5 star film, simply because the acting, particularly of Quinn, is exceptionally high, and it is beautifully filmed ).

 No...this is a film that should NEVER be remade.

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting comments, but you forget that, as the source is a novel, the new film wouldn't be a remake as such, but another interpretation. I think that if this was successful it would regenerate long overdue interest in Kazantzakis's work, juust as the Last Temptation did. In the same way that Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights have been filmed several times, there is no reason why Zorba couldn't be. It would show the world that this book was worthy of reinterpreation. Anthony Quinn was fantastic, but he isn't Zorba - Zorba was Zorba and the life which was chronicled by Kazantzakis can be reinterpreted.