Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, an introverted English writer goes to Crete to see about his land and mine, and a Greek extrovert works for him and teaches him about Greek culture on Crete.
At a dock in the rain Basil (Alan Bates) with an umbrella tells men to be careful with his trunks. He learns that the ship to Crete is being delayed. Inside he waits with others. He reads a book and sees Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn) who comes in and learns he is going to Crete. Zorba says he saw him with the boxes and that it was funny. He asks him to take him with him, and Basil asks why. Zorba asks why he needs a reason. Basil laughs, and Zorba says he could cook for him very well. Basil says his father was Greek, but he was born in England. He gives him a cigarette. Zorba says he is a miner; but he beat up the boss, and they kicked him out. Zorba laughs, and Basil says he is nervous about the boat. He gets up, and Zorba goes with him.
Outside Zorba tells Basil the boat is coming at ten. They have three hours and go into a place where Basil asks for tea. He says he is a writer of poetry and essays. Zorba says he thinks too much. Zorba tells him his names. Zorba drinks to his health, and he calls the sea maker of widows. Zorba carries a musical instrument called a santouri. He asks what Basil is going to do in Crete. Basil says he has land there that belonged to his father. He admits he has not written anything for months. Basil says there is a mine on the land, and Zorba knows it as Lignitis. Basil says he let it go idle, and Zorba says he wants to make it work. Basil says he must. After a pause Zorba asks Basil which way his mind is going, and Basil says he will need someone with experience. Zorba laughs and shakes hands. He tells Basil he is a lucky man. Basil hopes it will be good for the poor village. He says they will swim, and Zorba can drink wine and play the santouri. Zorba makes it clear that he will work as his man, but in playing and singing he is his own man and free. Basil agrees, and Zorba persuades him to drink some rum.
On the ship they experience rough seas. Zorba and Basil appear to be drunk. Zorba asks his boss if he likes a woman, and he says no. Zorba gets up because he is seasick. Basil finds him sitting on the deck. Basil asks if he is married. Zorba says he is a man and stupid, and so he married and got a wife, children, and a house—the full catastrophe. He asks Basil not to make him talk. Basil says he is single, and Zorba says he has too many books. Zorba is excited he saw a dolphin.
A man alerts the villagers that an American is coming. In the car Basil says he hopes they will find somewhere to stay. Zorba says they will find Cretan hospitality. People gather as the car arrives. Basil tells Zorba not to start another war. Zorba says there may be a widow around. Zorba says they all want them to stay with them. Mavrandoni (George Foundas) says a French woman has a hotel. He says Basil came at last, and he introduces himself. Basil says Mavrandoni has been looking after his land. Zorba asks if the French lady is a widow. Mavrandoni says she is a widow of many husbands. Basil and Zorba walk as the car follows them. Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova) comes out to welcome them, and Basil shakes her hand. Zorba asks for two beds without bugs. She says she has no bugs and leads them into her hotel.
That evening as they dine on a patio, Hortense sings and dances for them. She says she worked in cabarets. Zorba tells Basil to ask her to dance and make a pass. Zorba tells her that Basil would like to dance with her, but he is shy. Basil dances with her but does not hold her tight. Zorba dances with her to show him how. Children in the bushes laugh, and she gets upset. Zorba gets a pitcher and throws water at them, chasing them away. He consoles her, and she takes his cigarette which Basil lights for her. She says she came to Crete with the British fleet. She was in love with the admiral. Here she met a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Russian. She liked their beards but could tell them apart even in the dark because of their different perfumes. Zorba asks her to tell them about them. She laughs and says they poured champagne over her to keep her fresh. She says there was a revolution, and the Cretans were running around. The admiral wanted to open fire, but she persuaded him to stop it. She pleaded with her Canavaro and stopped the boom-boom. She says she got no medals, and Basil laughs. She goes up the stairs, and Zorba tells her not to go. He tells Basil they did a bad thing.
Zorba finds her crying on her bed and calls her Bouboulina. Basil comes in. Zorba says he is her Canavaro and helps her blow her nose. Zorba says she was a great hero in the war against the Turks, and Basil agrees. She says they made peace, and the ship went away. She says she is four times a widow. She believes men are cruel. They undressed her and gave her a bath in champagne which they drank from top to bottom. Then they put out the light, and she smelled so good; but they were gone. Zorba has his arm around her, and he waves for Basil to go. Basil goes out and closes the door.
On a rainy day Hortense closes her window. Three men bring a goat into a gathering place. A widow (Irene Pappas) comes down the street and goes in the place and looks around. Zorba and Basil go in after her. Zorba tells Basil she is a beautiful widow. She asks for her goat, and the men laugh and pass the goat around. Zorba gets angry and picks up the goat. He goes outside and gives it to her. Basil opens his umbrella for her, and she takes it and goes. Pavlo (George Voyadjis) runs outside, and a man calls him and goes back in. Zorba tells Basil that Mavrandoni is burning because his son is crazy in love with the widow; but she spits in his eye. He says all these men want her and hate her because they cannot have her. Zorba says only one man here can have her. Basil asks who, and Zorba says it is Basil. He saw how she looked at him. Zorba asks why God gave us hands, and he urges him to grab.
The widow hear knocking and gives fruit to Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas) through her window. Outside Zorba tells Basil to knock on her door. Basil says he does not want any trouble. Zorba says life is to look for trouble, but Basil says no.
A shepherd whistles. On a dirt road Zorba on a donkey leads a procession of workers with tools in singing.
Basil is in a house and walks down to the pier where Zorba and the others are working outside the mine shaft. Zorba uses a pick to check the braces on the mine, and some of it caves in. Basil calls him, and Zorba comes out. They work, and Zorba tells Basil to go back to his papers. Basil sees men come running out and goes in after Zorba who tells him to get out. Basil and others run out, and it caves in on Zorba. Basil calls to him, and Zorba comes out covered with dirt. He shouts at the mountain. He complains they left their axes inside. He says accidents cost money, but Basil is just glad no one was hurt. He suggests that Zorba let them go for the day. Zorba says he has to make up his mind whether he is a capitalist or not. Zorba says he is hungry, and they sit down and eat. He tells Basil to find strong beams for the mine. Zorba is drinking wine when he sees trees and asks a man who they belong to, and he says the monastery owns them.
Monks are chanting, and come out when the bell rings. Zorba with a wine jug is by a stream and hides as he sees a monk coming. He grabs the monk’s mouth and is bitten. The monk runs away screaming it is the devil. Zorba sees a large jug and pours water on his dirty head.
The monks gather and come out looking for him in the woods. They find two sticks in the form of a cross placed in the jug. Zorba watches from a tree as they take it out. The monk says it is wine. The monks drink from the jug and share it with Zorba.
Basil with glasses on is sitting at his desk and writing. Zorba comes in and eats some bread. Basil says he is late and asks what it is. Zorba asks if he trust him, and Basil says he does. Zorba asks why he does. He says his brain is not right because it gives him crazy ideas and might ruin him. Basil says he will take that chance. Zorba asks him to repeat it and takes courage from it. He tells Basil to dance and tells him to get out of the way. Zorba snaps his fingers and dances, twirling with his arms out and leaping. Men come and look in, and music starts playing. Zorba dances and goes outside and dances with the other men. After a while Basil goes out and tells them to stop. The other men leave, and Zorba is out of breath but dances some more until he collapses. Basil asks if he is all right. Zorba says now he can talk again. Basil asks what happened to him. Zorba says when a man is full, he bursts. He says when his first son Dimitri died at the age of three, he got up and danced. They said he was mad, but he says only the dancing stopped the pain. Now he is happy, and it is the same. Basil tells him to come inside so that he won’t catch cold. They go in, and Zorba drinks from a bottle with his permission. Basil asks what it is all about. Zorba says he has a big plan; but he can’t tell him because he has to do some figuring.
On the beach Zorba is molding a little mountain out of wet sand. He shows Basil his plan to bring the trees down by a cable. Basil says he is mad because the trees don’t belong to them. Zorba says they belong to the monastery which belongs to God who belongs to everybody. Zorba says he can pay them. Zorba says they could open a timber factory and get rich and sail around the world. Basil asks if he is going too fast. Zorba says he has to go fast. They say age kills the fire in old men. He says that is false because he has enough fight in him to devour the world. So he fights. He asks if they do it or let the mountain win. Basil asks him what he needs. Zorba says he has to figure out the angle because if it is not perfect, it will be a catastrophe. Basil says it has to be soon or not at all, and he gives him until Christmas.
Zorba rolls rocks down the hill, and two monks scurry away. He laughs.
Basil finds a bag and a bottle that Mimithos put in his house. He hears Zorba coming and hides them. Zorba comes in and smells rose water. Basil asks for news. Zorba says he discovered stones that are alive. He finds the umbrella under the bed, and Basil says never mind. Basil reminds him that tomorrow is Christmas. Zorba says he needs wire, and he looks for it. Zorba finds a Christmas cookie in an empty trunk. He asks if she came here, but Basil says she sent them. Zorba says now he has the proof, and it is simple. He starts to tell him what he should do tonight after the party; but Basil tells him to get on with his work. Zorba tells him a secret why he could not sleep. He could not think of her without anybody. He says if a woman sleeps alone, it shames all men. He says God has a very big heart, but he will not forgive one sin. If a woman calls a man to her bed, and he will not go. He knows because a wise old Turk told him. Basil asks why a Greek like him believed a Turk. Zorba goes to wash. Basil says he thought the Greeks and Turks never talked but only fought. He asks if he never went to war. Zorba says he thinks and asks how he can understand. Basil says he is making excuses, and he doubts he cares at all for his country. Zorba gets angry and tells him not to talk to him like that. Zorba shows him scars on his chest and stomach and says none are on his back. He fought Turks and Bulgarians. Now he looks at any man and asks only if he is good or bad. He does not care if they are Greek or Turk. As he gets older he swears by the bread he eats that he does not even ask if they are good or bad. He asks what is the difference because we all end up the same way, food for worms. As for women he asks how he cannot love them because they are poor weak creatures. They give you all they got.
Zorba and Basil in suits and ties visit Hortense, and Zorba gives her his Christmas art work of a mermaid with lines to four ships. Basil wishes her a merry Christmas and kisses her hand. Zorba asks what he is smelling from the kitchen. She says it is a fat turkey. Zorba tells her to sit down and goes to see if it is burning. She sits down, and Basil kneels by her and asks if she is feeling well. She says at her age she is never well especially on holidays. Zorba proposes a toast, and they hear a cat screeching. He asks that the great powers come back to Crete, and when she rises to greet them, may all their ships crash on these hard rocks. As he says this, he grabs one of her breasts. She takes his hand in hers and says she wishes it could happen, but it is too late. Zorba says it is not and embraces her and tickles her. She runs from him, and he goes after her. She falls on the floor, and he calms down and lifts her up. She says they will see if it is too late. Zorba tells her not to be sad because he has heard of a doctor in Europe who gives you medicine that makes you twenty again. He promises to get her some, and she asks for a big bottle. She rests her head on his shoulder, and he asks what she is thinking. She remembers how the cities loved her. Zorba goes out to chase the cats away, and Basil puts a blanket over her legs. Zorba comes back and sees she is asleep. Basil says she is strolling around Alexandria. Zorba says she is smiling and having a good time. They leave.
Outside a bell is ringing, and Zorba tells Basil that she is in. Basil says he is going to church; but Zorba says he is young and full of energy. Basil says he is tired of this and asks him to leave him alone. Zorba says he wants the best for him and loves him. Basil tells him not to shout. Zorba sees her in the window and says she is waiting. Basil says this is ridiculous, and he is not going to argue. Zorba says she is waiting for him. Basil says he is different and has to go his own way. Zorba says if God did that he would not have gone to Mary, and Christ would not have been born. He says Mary is the widow, and Basil walks away. Zorba shouts that on a dead man’s door you can knock forever.
Zorba sees Basil sleeping and runs toward the sea taking off his clothes.
Zorba is on a horse, and Basil gives him the money and says it is all they can afford for the cable. He warns him not to get stuck on the way. Zorba promises he will be quick like the wind. Basil says he has five days. Hortense comes to Zorba and tells him not to forget her. He rides off, and Basil says he is coming back. She says they all they say that.
Basil is walking on a dirt road and sees the widow walking toward him. He slows down, nods at her, and walks on.
Zorba is walking in a city eating a snack. He goes in a cabaret where a fat lady is dancing. He is drinking and eyes the waitresses. Lola (Eleni Anousaki) comes over and calls him “grandpa.” He orders champagne, and she kisses his cheek. She is drinking with him and holds his arm. He buys a basket of flowers for her. She giggles and kisses him. He pays the bill and gives the violinist money too. He walks out, and she goes after him.
Outside Lola asks his name, and he says it is Grandpa. He kisses her.
A scholar is reading a letter in English to Zorba who tells him it was very wild. He dictates that he woke up the next afternoon in bed with the woman. He kisses her and says she is soft and warm and sweet-smelling. He says to himself that he is in paradise and should enjoy it.
Basil walks outside as he reads the letter. He is angry and calls Antoni. He reads where Zorba says he is making the best deals. Basil writes that he is to come back at once. He gives the letter to a man with some money. Hortense comes up the hill and taps on the window. She heard he has a letter and asks if it is from him. Basil says it is and tells her to read it herself. She takes it and says she cannot read because of her eyes. Basil says he wrote that he is very busy. She asks if there is something for her, and she asks him to read it for her. Basil says he wrote to tell Bouboulina that he misses her. He elaborates and says he wrote that he prayed to God to send him back to her quickly. When he sees her again, he will kneel before her and ask her to be his forever. Basil says that is what he wrote. She says she accepts, and she asks him to write and tell him to bring her five meters of white satin which she cannot find here. He says he understands. She says Zorba and he like him very much, and she asks him to be their witness. He says it will be an honor, and she goes out.
At night Basil is writing at his desk. He smells the rose water and puts some on his hair. He picks up his coat and slaps a wall. He puts his arms out as if to dance but throws his coat down. He sits on his bed and strums the santouri a little.
At night a young man in a suit tries to give a letter to the widow over a wall, but she tells him to go away. He hears a dog barking and runs away. She crumples the letter and throws it on the road where Mavrandoni picks it up. The suitor goes to him as she goes in her house. Mavrandoni slaps the suitor.
Basil blows out his lamp.
The widow hears a knock and answers in Greek. Basil says something in Greek, and she opens the door and lets him in.
A man in a place with tables whispers to another man, and they whisper to the suitor who says they are lies.
Basil walks up stairs slowly and sees her crying. He says he is sorry and turns to go, but she stands up and says something in Greek. She is in a nightgown and lets down her hair. He touches her hair gently, and she turns and kisses him. She blows out the lamp and removes her nightgown and turns back to him. Suddenly she picks up the nightgown and covers herself. He quickly embraces her, and slowly she returns the embrace.
At sunrise men have gathered at the beach, and Mavrandoni sees something horrifying. Men carry the body of the suitor on their shoulders.
The widow hears them outside and looks out the window. They throw rocks at her house. Mimithos comes forward from her house, and they stop. An old woman cries out asking if he is her lover too. The men laugh, and Mimithos laughs too. Mavrandoni comes forward, and they stop laughing. The widow opens the window. Mavrandoni walks, and those carrying the body follow him.
Basil finds Zorba is home and says he stinks of perfume. Zorba laughs and shakes his hand, saying he scrubbed for two hours, but it still smells. Zorba says he brought presents for Bouboulina and others. Basil says he hopes it is a wedding dress. Zorba asks what he has been cooking up. He says he could not read to her what was in the letter. Zorba says that was not a good joke. Basil asks about the equipment for the overhead cable, and Zorba says he got everything. He gives Basil a box of English chocolates. Zorba says there will be no more fooling around, and they will make a pile of money. Basil laughs and says he is incorrigible. Basil asks Zorba what he did to his hair, and he says he painted it so that he would look younger and not make Lola ashamed. Basil laughs, and Zorba says he became young and strong like a bull. The pain in his kidneys is gone. Zorba asks where he was last night, but Basil says nothing.
The widow leaves her house and walks down a street. A woman follows her. A man motions others to follow her too.
On another street priests are leading a funeral procession to the church where people have gathered including Basil. Mavrandoni blocks the door to keep the widow from entering. She tries to run away, but men corner her by a low wall. She goes over the wall, but other men close in on her from different directions.
Basil is in the church as monks chant. He hears the shouting outside and goes out.
The widow tries to run away but ends up in an open space surrounded by people. She runs to men, and they push her away. Basil calls for Zorba. She stands by a dead tree, and three men grab her. One rips her dress, and she goes on the ground and clings to the tree. Mavrandoni nods to a younger man with a knife. He walks toward her, but suddenly Zorba appears and fights with him. He manages to get him to drop the knife and picks it up. The young man walks away. Zorba helps her up and tells her to come with him. He throws the knife away and walks ahead of her. Mavrandoni comes up behind her and grabs her hair and cuts her throat. The people walk away, and the younger man helps Mavrandoni get away. Basil walks over to Zorba and says he couldn’t help. Mimithos cries over her.
At home Zorba asks Basil why anyone dies. Basil says he does not know. Zorba asks him what his books tell him. Basil says they tell him about the agony of men who cannot answer questions like that. Zorba says he spits on their agony.
Men are carrying wood up the hill, and they build the supports for the cable.
On a rainy day Basil and Zorba come home and find Hortense waiting on the porch. They bring her in, and she tells Zorba he is cruel. She says the whole village is laughing at her. She asks where her white satin and wedding dress are. Zorba says he could not find good satin in Crete, and so he ordered some from Athens and also white candles and ribbons. He embraces her and tells her how glorious their wedding will be. He says he has engaged tailors in Athens to make her the best wedding dress ever. He describes what it will look like. She says she has a secret for him and gives him a little package and tells him to open it now. Zorba whispers to Basil about what he has done. Zorba asks her where she got these rings. She says she had them made for him and her from the gold sovereigns the English admiral gave her. She was keeping them for her funeral. She goes to Zorba and asks if they can become fiancés now please. He says they have no priest. She says she does not mind because God is watching. He says they will go outside where God can see them better. She hugs him, and he tells her to get ready and Basil to be the witness. She puts on make-up.
Outside Basil asks what they will do. Zorba says he was a boy chanter, and he chants in Greek. She walks to them, and Basil has her stand between them. She takes Zorba’s arm, and he blesses her.
Zorba is heating glass cups and attaching them to her back while she is lying in bed. He says it is only a cold and that she will feel better. Next Sunday they will go out and have a hell of a time. He opens the curtains so the sun can cheer her up. He motions to Basil in the yard, and Basil leaves with a boy. Zorba removes the suction cups that make a noise. He says she is sexy and that he is jealous.
An old woman runs to get a neighbor. Some are dancing outside where many have gathered. She says the foreigner is dying. They hurry to her house.
Zorba is lying next to Hortense, and Basil brings him a fan. The two old ladies come in and sit down on the floor. Hortense says she does not want them. Outside men are catching chickens. Basil goes out the door and keeps other women from coming in. An old woman tries to take some things from a drawer. Hortense prays with a small cross in French. She mentions Canavaro and kisses the cross. The two women think she died and scream. Hortense screams, and Zorba tries to get other women entering to go back out. He goes back to Hortense and tells her not to be afraid. She embraces him and dies. He puts her hands on her chest and walks out as the women scream and start ransacking the place.
People take things and put them outside. Zorba comes out and stands by Basil. They see women coming out wearing her clothes. A man gives them glasses, and Zorba says he wants them to drink to her soul. They drink, and Zorba walks back into the room that is now bare except for the bed with her body and the birdcage on a table. He picks up the birdcage and goes out.
In the street Basil asks Zorba about the funeral, and he says there will be no funeral because she was a Frank who crossed herself with four fingers. He says priests will not bury her like everybody else. Basil says that is dreadful. Zorba asks why and says she is dead, and it makes no difference.
Flowers are blooming, and women are harvesting. The cable line has been built from the forest to the sea. People gather to see it start operating.
Zorba tells Basil to come and watch too.
Priests bless the event, and Zorba fires a rifle from the beach. Men start a log going down the cable, and it gains speed as it goes. The wood breaks apart but makes it to Zorba and Basil. Zorba says it is nothing. Zorba fires the gun again, and they send another log. People run away, and some go in the ocean. The log lands in the sea. Men stand up. Zorba asks where the boss is and says it is nothing. He fires the rifle again, and a larger log comes down. The braces give way and fall over as the people run away. The cable pulls all the braces on the line down. Basil’s white suit is dirty and so is Zorba’s dark suit. They stand up and look at each other. Zorba remembers the lamb and says it will burn. He goes and tears off some meat and brings two plates for Basil and himself. They sit and eat. Zorba looks at a bone and says people can tell the future from this. He says everything is fine and that they will live a thousand years, He sees a big journey to a city with big houses. Basil picks up the wine glasses, and Zorba asks how soon. Basil says in a few days. Zorba asks what he will do without his company. Basil tells him to cheer up because they will get together again. Zorba says no because he will go away and stay with his books. They toast each other’s health and drink. Zorba tells Basil that he has everything except a little madness. He says a man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope to be free. Basil stands up and asks Zorba to teach him to dance. Zorba goes to him, takes off his jacket, and tells him to come on. He snaps his fingers, and they put their arms out touching each other’s shoulders. They dance slowly as Zorba shows him. Zorba says he has so much to tell him. He never loved a man more than him. He asks his boss if he ever saw a more splendiferous crash. They laugh, and Basil says they saw how they all ran. Zorba says especially the monks. Basil says the third time was the best. He takes off his jacket and says there is nothing left. They dance faster.
This drama portrays two opposite personalities from different cultures. The English introvert is always thinking and has difficulty expressing his feelings while the Greek expresses his feelings freely. The French widow who loves many men is also contrasted to the Greek widow who is very withdrawn and selective. The ways of the villagers are limited by superstitions and prejudices while Zorba stands out for his courage and independence.