October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.
Today: The 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, screenplay by Mihalis Kakogiannis, novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. IMDB plot summary:
An uptight English writer traveling to Crete on a matter of business finds his life changed forever when he meets the gregarious Alexis Zorba.
The uptight Englishman Basil is played expertly by Alan Bates. But it is Zorba who steals the movie and Anthony Quinn, who played the role, was nominated for Best Actor in 1964.
The movie is an almost perfect tale of head vs. heart. Basil is the quintessential uptight Englishman who has inherited a house on Crete. Zorba a passionate, half-crazed Greek latches onto Basil in the movie’s initial scenes, as a boat carrying Basil, Zorba, and other citizens of Crete make their away across the sea in a huge storm. While the story has several subplots with a thematic backdrop of a FOOW (Fish-Out-Of-Water) acclimating himself to a foreign culture, the emotional core of the movie is the relationship between Basil and Zorba.
In Act Three, after Basil has essentially given all his money to Zorba to feed his frenetic vision of creating a system to deliver logs from up top of the island down to the sea, the edifice collapses (in another great scene). And so after all the people who showed up to celebrate scurry away amidst the destruction of Zorba’s grand scheme and Basil’s last remaining bit of wealth, the two men are left alone on the beach for this great scene:
I first saw this movie in a religious studies class at the U. of Virginia. The professor cited this scene as an example of existentialism — that in the midst of despair and seeming hopelessness, these two choose to defy rationality and dance. If you watch the movie, and track the fitful advance of understanding between these two characters, so absolutely opposite each other, then grasp the power and beauty of them dancing on the beach, I am sure you will agree — this is truly a Great Scene.
For your added enjoyment, here is some of the wit and wisdom of Alexis Zorba:
Alexis Zorba: If a woman sleeps alone, it puts a shame on all men.
Alexis Zorba: Damn it boss, I like you too much not to say it. You’ve got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else…
Basil: Or else?
Alexis Zorba: …he never dares cut the rope and be free.
Alexis Zorba: What kind of man are you, don’t you even like dolphins?
Basil: I don’t want any trouble.
Alexis Zorba: Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.
Alexis Zorba: How can I not love them? Poor weak creatures… and they take so little, a man’s hand on their breast, and they give you all they got.
Alexis Zorba: On a deaf man’s door, you can knock forever!
Alexis Zorba: No more fooling around, not in this place. We’ll pull our pants up and make a pile of money.
Alexis Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die?
Basil: I don’t know.
Alexis Zorba: What’s the use of all your damn books if they can’t answer that?
Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.
Alexis Zorba: I spit on this agony!
Alexis Zorba: All right, we go outside where God can see us better.
Alexis Zorba: Hey boss, did you ever see a more splendiferous crash?
Alexis Zorba: God has a very big heart but there is one sin he will not forgive
Alexis Zorba: If a woman calls a man to her bed and he will not go. I know because a very wise old Turk told me.
Alexis Zorba: Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.
And there’s this. One of the reasons I love this blog is because of the insights I receive from readers. I originally posted this Great Scene back in 2009, but just yesterday received an email from Daniel Escobar who found it… well, let him explain:
I was writing a letter and I was looking for a picture of Zorba dancing when I found your site. I read what you said about Zorba. I agree completely. I just wanted to add that a teacher in college pointed out that one of the important parts of that last scene is that after the catastrophe happens and the smoke clears, Zorba realizes the lamb is burning and excitedly runs to save what’s there. This shows us how we should be (or how a child is), that after we have a catastrophe in our lives we don’t brood about it but rather jump to the next exciting thing.
The teacher said Kazantzakis was a great admirer of Nietzsche’s and he wrote his dissertation on him. The book spends a little more time on the British guy because it is supposed to be the idea of the Apollonian (the British guy played expertly by Alan Bates) struggling with the Dionysian (Zorba, obviously); a big Nietzchean theme. Zorba the Greek in my humble opinion is one of the few instances in history when the movie is actually better than the book.
That aside, I like the idea of Zorba forgetting the catastrophe in a blink of an eye and moving on to the lamb that is cooking because I think it is a great lesson.
Nietzsche has a great aphorism which I think captures this; “Maturity is recapturing the seriousness of a child at play.” A child is totally involved and in love with his playing (with an attention we no longer have). But he knows it isn’t important and he can leave it with a blink of an eye to go do something else. It would be cool if we were like that. What choice do we have, right? Zorba is a GREAT role model.
After I responded to Daniel, he followed up with this:
I’ve thought a lot about Zorba the Greek actually. The other great sub-plot is the whole thing with how they kill the widow. Nietzsche wrote a lot about “resentment” and how it was such a powerful and ugly force in society. Do you remember when they’re in the tavern how Zorba tells Basil that they are all seething because they want her but cannot have her and so they detest her? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a movie before or after. Very penetrating observation. From there to murdering her as a mob is only a hop-skip and a jump, of course.
The whole thing with the French old maid is wonderfully written and acted. Zorba is so sweet to her and her death is so pathetic and meaningless. Tragic with a capital T. Nobody writes things like that anymore. But they should because so many people are suffering things like that in the world right now.
Also the scene where the British guy teases Zorba about how he listens to Turks and Zorba says, “I listen to you talk and I see that your legs and arms aren’t connected to your head. You don’t feel what you are saying. You are like a puppet.” Or something like that [I forget the exact words]. I always thought Zorba was supposed to be an example of someone who is RIGHT HERE; RIGHT NOW, as we should be.
I knew about Kazantzakis and his interest in existentialism, but not about his fascination with Nietzsche. That knowledge and the insights Daniel sent my way are one example of how this blog can work, an ongoing dialogue about a narrative form we all love: movies.
To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here. If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!