Anthony Quinn: 10 essential films

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Anthony Quinn won two Oscars, played many different nationalities and appeared in countless memorable films, from Lawrence of Arabia to Zorba the Greek.

Mike Sutton
Updated:

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Born in Mexico on 21 April 1915, Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca was the son of a Mexican mother and a father with Irish blood who rode with Pancho Villa during the revolution and subsequently found employment in Hollywood as a cameraman. Antonio simplified his name and, having boxed and studied art with Frank Lloyd Wright, took up the offer of a contract with Universal Pictures; his first speaking role was in Parole! (1936). Quinn’s exotic heritage encouraged his casting in any number of ethnic roles and within his first 10 years in films he had played numerous Mexicans, Spaniards, Italians and two notable American Indian chiefs. This casting tendency defined the rest of his career and, in middle age, assisted in making him famous.

Viva Zapata (1952)

Director Elia Kazan

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Going back to his roots, Quinn plays Eufemio Zapata, brother of Emiliano, in a rather fanciful biopic devised by a collaboration between John Steinbeck and Elia Kazan. The film was designed as a showcase for Marlon Brando who plays Emiliano, the revolutionary whose brother betrays the cause and becomes a dictator in his own right. Ironically Quinn took over from Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and was convinced that he gave a better performance – Quinn was never short on self-belief. This led to a rivalry between the two actors which was exploited by Kazan, even when it led to a legendary contest to see who could urinate the furthest. Quinn gives a big, rousing, macho performance, running away with most of his scenes, and he had the last laugh on his co-star by winning an Academy Award. He was the first Mexican-American actor to be so honoured.

La strada (1954)

Director Federico Fellini

La strada (1954)

La strada (1954)

Despite winning an Oscar, Quinn’s work in Hollywood was very much business as usual and it was only by going to Italy that he managed to break out of some very stereotyped roles. He was chosen by Federico Fellini to appear in La strada after appearing with Giulietta Masina in Donne proibite (1954) and was initially hesitant, but was convinced after seeing Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953).

He plays Zampano, an itinerant performer who meets Masina’s Gelsomina and becomes her dominator, refusing to either marry her or give her up to anyone else. Quinn takes a role which threatens, for much of the film, to be one-note and invests it with a kind of savage nobility in which cruelty mingles with an essential isolation. Consequently, the end of the film, when he is required to break down in tears, comes as less of a jarring character shift. It was, said Quinn, the hardest work he had ever done but he always remembered it as one of his favourite experiences.

Lust for Life (1956)

Director Vincente Minnelli

Lust for Life (1956)

Lust for Life (1956)

Having played numerous ethnicities during his first 20 years in Hollywood, Quinn was well prepared to try a new one, and his portrayal of the French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s biopic of Van Gogh won him his second Oscar. The film is most notable as a study in the sheer overwhelming psychological power of film colour, but it’s an honourable and accurate biography, with a strong Kirk Douglas performance in the central role. Quinn only appears in the film for about 20 minutes but he makes such a strong impression that he seems to be on equal terms with Douglas. His Gauguin gets all the best lines and dominates the screen in a charismatically roguish manner, which was soon to become a Quinn trademark. He’s also very funny, a trait in his performances for which Quinn has not always received enough credit.

The Buccaneer (1958)

Director Anthony Quinn

The Buccaneer (1958)

The Buccaneer (1958)

In 1938, Cecil B. DeMille directed The Buccaneer, a historical adventure set, unusually, during the war of 1812 between America and Britain. Twenty years later, too ill to be on set himself, he produced a remake and chose Quinn, his son-in-law, to direct it. It was his only work as a director and it’s interesting purely for this, although the film is generally considered to be a job for hire which is far more reflective of DeMille’s style and taste than anyone else’s. Certainly, it’s a very competent piece of filmmaking, filmed entirely on studio sets, with a rousing battle sequence and good performances from Charles Boyer and Charlton Heston. It should be noted however that, in terms of history, the film is largely bunk. It did nothing to encourage Quinn to direct again and it might have been better had he succeeded in his original plan to produce and direct an American adaptation of Seven Samurai (1954). 

The Savage Innocents (1959)

Director Nicholas Ray

The Savage Innocents (1960)

The Savage Innocents (1960)

Nicholas Ray’s study of Inuit life certainly has faults but it also has a kind of lunatic courage which results in an uneven film which is often madly, wildly beautiful. The script is frequently trite and self-conscious, leaving the images to do much of the work and this is where Anthony Quinn comes into his own. Playing Inuk, an Inuit male trying to find acceptance and finding only alienation, Quinn’s face becomes an barometer of emotional states and expresses far more than his lines or the occasional uses of banal voiceover. Quinn’s sheer presence is right at the centre of the film; Ray places him against the isolation of the Arctic landscape, emphasising not only the otherness of the Inuit culture but our shared humanity compared to the vast, unsympathetic cruelty of nature. It’s a fiercely intelligent, non-judgemental work, the failure of which at the box office led to an undeserved neglect. It’s one of Ray’s most interesting films.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Anyone watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time at home may possibly wonder what all the fuss was about. But on a big screen, preferably in 70mm, it’s David Lean’s triumph and one of the great wonders of cinema, a film which uses the huge frame as part of its narrative strategy. It made Peter O’Toole a legend, Omar Sharif a star, and offered a final hurrah to the great Claude Rains. It says much for Anthony Quinn’s stature as an actor that he is completely at home in this company, never dwarfed by the awe-inspiring landscapes, and capturing the balance of nobility and cruelty that defined the Arab Howeitat chieftain Auda ibu Tayi. Quinn makes the most of every line of Robert Bolt’s dialogue – particularly his monologue explaining how he is “a river to my people” – and clearly relished the part, researching the history and insisting on applying his own make-up.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Director Michael Cacoyannis

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Zorba the Greek (1964)

If Quinn wasn’t a star before Zorba, he certainly was afterwards. The story, based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, is basically about a clash of cultures between a shy English writer, played by Alan Bates, and a wily Greek peasant who insists on tagging along on a visit to a small village in Crete. Shot in black and white by Walter Lassally, the film makes the island a beautiful yet alien place, exotic enough to launch a thousand package holidays. There are good performances from Bates, Irene Papas and an award-winning Lila Kedrova, but the film belongs firmly to Quinn, who grabs his opportunity with both hands and wrestles it to the ground. Zorba is a simple man and sometimes a difficult one, but his generous lust for experience and enjoyment of life is deeply alluring. Assisted by music from Mikis Theodorakis, it was a role which defined Quinn forever – he even revived it in a Broadway musical in 1983.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

Director Michael Anderson

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

Quinn essays another nationality in this account of an exiled Russian archbishop who, following various international intrigues, becomes the Pope. He gives a performance which is notable for its restraint (particularly in comparison to the many Zorba-esque roles he was given in the 1960s) and its subdued power, and he works beautifully with the great German actor Oskar Werner. This is a film without much of a reputation and that’s unfortunate because although it’s a bit unwieldy at 162 minutes and certainly a little too solemn, it has a collection of fine cameo performances – Olivier’s Soviet premier is a treat – and a fascinatingly detailed account of the process of a papal election. Its attempts to address the political concerns of the time are hesitant and a soap-opera subplot involving a television journalist is dispensable, but Quinn’s powerful presence pulls it together.

Across 110th Street (1972)

Director Barry Shear

Across 110th Street (1972)

Across 110th Street (1972)

Often lumped in with the wave of blaxploitation films, Across 110th Street is in a class of its own. Quite apart from the iconic Bobby Womack soundtrack and the incredible New York location shooting, it deals far more intelligently than most films of the time with a clash of ethnicities which leads inexorably to brutal tragedy. Quinn was an executive producer on the film, hoping that it would do something to revive a career which was beginning to flag, and he does a fine job as the ageing Detective Matelli, a man in late middle age who has had enough of the filth through which he has to wade on a daily basis. It could be a one-note character but Quinn manages to balance the bigotry and casual racism of the character with a palpable sense of hopelessness. The undervalued Barry Shear directs all of this with a keen eye for character and location, and he gets strong work out of Yaphet Kotto and a very scary Anthony Franciosa.

Revenge (1990)

Director Tony Scott

Revenge (1990)

Revenge (1990)

During the 1980s, Quinn’s career in films stalled and he went back to the theatre. At the end of the decade he returned and appeared to good effect in films as varied as Jungle Fever (1991) and Only the Lonely (1991). His best later performance is in Tony Scott’s glossy thriller Revenge, where he plays a Mexican crime boss whose friend, played by Kevin Costner, cuckolds him. Seeking revenge, he mutilates his wife, forces her into prostitution, and nearly beats his friend to death. It’s all brutal stuff, not to mention faintly misogynistic, but it’s done with glossy conviction by Scott (who would return to the style of this film in Man on Fire in 2004) and acted with immense force by Quinn, who is genuinely unnerving as the sadistic mobster who treats his wife as a possession.

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