In recent years, cinemagoers have feasted on a plethora of movies with a Greek theme. From the buffed-up men in the film 300 and its sequel, to more buffed-up men in Hercules, Greece has certainly been at the forefront of many a film setting − or has it?
Jason Bourne in his recent incarnation starts off at the Greek-Albanian border before we are taken on a journey through a riot-affected Athens. If you look closely you will see a passing resemblance to Syntagma, but if you have been to Tenerife, you would easily place the filming in the Spanish territory where it was actually shot. Not to be outdone, Hollywood has essentially bypassed Greece wherever possible due to the tax breaks offered elsewhere. Hercules was shot in Hungary, 300 Rise of an Empire in Bulgaria, and the list goes on.
Despite these drawbacks, enough film producers took a chance and left their mark with classics made in the land of the endless ocean and landscape. Coming up with a top 10 was no mean feat. Factors included how it was received critically, originality, box office and use of local actors.
Drum roll …
#10 BOY ON A DOLPHIN
Arguably one of the biggest stars of her generation, Sophia Loren sets our list in motion with this 1957 film. It was the first time Hollywood ventured to this part of the world, with Hydra the destination. The female protagonist finds herself trying to sell an ancient Greek statue which she uncovered as a sponge diver! The film received an Oscar nomination for the song What Is The Thing Called Love?, which was performed in Greek by Loren, accompanied by Tony Maroudas. The film still screens on televisions around the world.
#9 SHIRLEY VALENTINE
It’s no surprise that romance and Mykonos will feature on this list. While some may say the Kings of Mykonos deserves a spot within the 10 as an Aussie entry and one that used the local landscape well, it’s actually the 1989 classic Shirley Valentine that does. Directed by veteran 007 genius Lewis Gilbert, the lead actress, Pauline Collins, collected a swag of awards for her portrayal of the title role. The film inspired millions to search for love and romance on the Greek islands and its impact upon an upsurge of tourism is evident by the hordes of Europeans that made their way to the Cyclades around this time … some of them finding their true love at a beach bar.
#8 FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
Moving along from a Bond director to an actual 007 film, this one will resonate with plenty of us who grew up in the ’80s. The film features Kristatos the baddie and takes us from London to Rome and of course Corfu and the stunning Byzantine Meteora on the Greek mainland; a nice break from the usual island setting. If you are a fan of Bond or enjoy a movie with stunning locations, this is one to rewind and watch. One of the highest-grossing movies of the era and thoroughly enjoyable, if only for Roger Moore’s quirky pan-faced one-liners.
#7 THE GUNS OF NAVARONE
Before Bond on screen we had a range of heroes, played by some of the leading actors of the ’60s. Gregory Peck, David Niven and honorary Greek though Mexican-born Anthony Quinn features in his first of two movies with the beautiful Irene Pappas. And I remain in love with her to this day. This World War Two drama was shot in Rhodes and Symi. Quinn felt at home here and subsequently bought property; there remains an area approximately 10km from Rhodes Town called Anthony Quinn Bay which I visited on a recent trip. The movie was the second-highest grossing of 1961 and took home an Oscar. A sequel was made in 1968.
#6 ZORBA THE GREEK
Anthony Quinn and Irene Pappas, a zest for life, drama, humility and the triumph of the human spirit. This is the film that made the sirtaki and Mikis Theodorakis famous and solidified Alan Bates as a leading British actor. Zorba is one of the most famous names of the twentieth century; the dance of Zorba is legendary and the film will forever live on as a reminder of a golden era of filmmaking. Taking home a swag of awards, the film inspired a Broadway play and hundreds of Zorba-themed eateries around the world. No one will ever forget the dance and music at the end of this stunning movie on a Cretan beach. Cypriot Michael Cacoyannis proved to be one shrewd director.
#5 MAMA MIA
While Zorba will always remind us of Greek dancing, Mama Mia will always conjure up images of Hollywood heavyweights gyrating and singing. I can honestly say this was one big surprise. Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan (formerly Bond) and Colin Firth, it was shot in the Sporades at Skopelos and Skiathos, not to mention picturesque Damouchari in Thessaly. The beauty of the island backdrop thanks to the work of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, meshed with Abba tunes, love, betrayal, family issues and sex, was enough to draw in audiences from all over the world. The Sporades suddenly grew in stature as a tourist destination from 2008. The film made over $600 million worldwide set against a budget of $52 million. Only a non-romantic or a Grinch could begrudge this feel-good smash hit.
#4 LITTLE ENGLAND
While the previous entry contained English actor Firth and London-raised Brosnan, this film actually contains England in its title as a reference to the high society of Andros that the film is attempting to portray in Pantelis Voulgaris’ heartbreaking look at Greece during the 1930s and through the war. Of all the movies on this list, this is the one that will surely bring a tear to your eye and take a chunk from your heart. The film is brilliantly written around the ship captains and their wives, the race to reach high society and those damaged as a result of that clamour. It was the second-highest grossing Greek film at the Hellenic box office in 2013 with an all-Greek cast and production. Earning a number of awards internationally, Little England has only ever received positive reviews and leaves the viewer with much to ponder as they depart from the cinema with a wet handkerchief.
#3 THE 300 SPARTANS
The 300 Spartans takes us back a few thousand years from the dreary setting of Little England to the invasion of the Persians. This film was a 1962 masterpiece that was shot near the Corinth canal, unlike the Frank Miller-inspired 300 which was made elsewhere. What made it even more appealing was not the incredible story told, it was that the film actually served as Cold War propaganda by the Americans. Somehow, the Persians were meant to represent the Russians … probably due to the vodka they carried under their shields!
One of the highest-grossing movies of the year, The 300 Spartans was also notable for the loaning of 5,000 soldiers by the Hellenic military to play both Spartans and Persians. It helped bring to light some of the ancient Greek stories that needed a global audience. Generations of kids grew up watching this film, wanting to be part of the mighty Spartans and their heroic deeds.
#2 NEVER ON A SUNDAY
When you look up the word classic in the dictionary, chances are you may see an entry for this 1960 film which was led by the incredible Melina Mercouri. Interestingly, it has some similarities with Zorba in that a prostitute finds a way into the story, Piraeus features and the music is remembered for all time. This time, Manos Hadjidakis won an Oscar for the title song, while the Academy gave out numerous nominations including for best actress. director, writer, producer and actor. Co-starring in the film was Jules Dassin, a Philhellene, communist sympathiser and husband of Mercouri.
The quality of the filmmaking and its predominantly Greek cast will be rotated as a classic film for generations to come.
#1 A TOUCH OF SPICE
Another film with a predominantly Greek cast and a number of acclaimed Turkish actors added to the spicy mix. The film is one with strong messages of peace and friendship that transcends the sadness of the Turkish government- orchestrated deportation of Greek speakers from Constantinople (Istanbul) from 1955 through to the 1970s.
Director Tassos Boulmetis takes us on a journey that most filmmakers can only envy; political intrigue between Turkey and Greece, the power of family, the power of forgiveness and the sadness of nostalgia, while leaving the viewer with a smile at its conclusion. The many moving scenes are set among the cosmopolitanism of the once-Greek Istanbul and of course Greece. If you believe that film can provide magic, this is one that you need to download or grab on DVD and sit back and soak in. By the end of the film you will a. research the history of Greek people in the city by the Bosporus and b. strongly consider booking your next trip to Turkey. Along with eight Greek Film Awards, the movie gained strong international acclaim and reasonable box office receipts in 2003.
Honourable mentions of movies that did not make the list include: Xenia the 2014 film about two Gree
k/Albanian brothers; My Life in Ruins, the romantic comedy by Nia Vardalos set in Athens; Theo Angelopoulos’ 1995 Ulysses Gaze starring Harvey Keitel; Mediterraneo, which is the Italian film set on Castellorizo, winning an Oscar for best foreign film in 1991; any of the Aliki Vougiouklaki movies and the 1962 Phaedra, another Mercouri-Dassin collaboration.
* Billy Cotsis is the director of Lesvos: Fall in Love. Watch out for announcements of the Greek Film Festival across Australia in September/October.