Dramatic landscapes, romantic sunsets, bucolic scenes, diverse natural wonders, more ancient and modern history than you can wave a camera lens at – Greece has all the elements necessary to elevate a Hollywood film into blockbuster proportions.
Indeed even less-than-stellar films filmed in the country routinely receive uniform praise for the scenery – almost as if the film critics wish that the actors would stop hamming it up in front of the cameras and let them take in more of Greece. And when great performances are given in some of Greece’s more jaw-dropping destinations, the result is true movie magic.
While the country’s legendary bureaucracy has prevented many a production from filming here, the movies set in the country have invariably left legacies that have lasted for years and even decades.
Below are some of the most memorable films in which Greece is the stage.
1.Before Midnight – Peloponnese (2014)
The third installment of a project that began in 1995, charting the relationship between Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) over the course of 20 years, the film finds the couple at the end of a holiday in Mani in the Peloponnese.
As they stroll through the bucolic Greek countryside littered with animals roaming freely, ancient monuments and dirt roads, they discuss love, life and their relationship.
When asked to compare Greece to the locations of the other two films (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) Hawke said ”We had the best time in Greece and there’s no doubt about that.”
2. Mamma Mia – Skiathos & Skopelos (2008)
Based on the famous Broadway musical, 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of Donna (Meryl Streep) invites three men to her wedding who had a relationship with her mother 20 years ago in the hopes of discovering which one of them is her father.
With an exceptional cast (which along with Streep includes Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth) and set on the gorgeous islands of Skiathos and Skopelos, this much-loved film went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2008.
The film provided a major boost to tourism on the islands and to this day one of the much-visited sites on Skopelos is the church of Aghios Ioannis where the wedding was filmed as well as the most famous song in the film, “The Winner Takes it All”.
3. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life – Santorini (2003)
For the Lara Croft franchise which focuses on the adventures of the young, smart and athletic British archaeologist as she explores ancient (and of course dangerous) tombs, Greece is a natural setting.
And where better for Croft to do her thing than on Santorini, where in the film a strong earthquake dramatically interrupts a cliffside wedding and reveals an underwater ancient temple built by Alexander the Great to house his most valuable treasures. (Why would Alexander the Great build his temple on Santorini and not in Macedonia you ask? Because the producers wanted to set the movie there, ok? Deal with it.)
Among the treasures is Pandora’s Box and Croft needs to get to it before bio-terrorists do, because of course she does. The film may not be great (in fact its terrible scoring a distinctly not fresh 24% on Rotten Tomatoes) but even the most cack-handed director couldn’t make Santorini look less than glorious on the silver screen.
Angelina Jolie who plays the titular character appears to have fallen in love with the place during filming, returning to the island on holiday with Brad Pitt.
4. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Kefalonia (2001)
With the outbreak of WWII, Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) is forced to bid farewell to her fiancé Mandras (Christian Bale) who heads off to fight on the Albanian front against the Italians. The invasion of her homeland of Kefalonia sees the Italian Captain Corelli (Nicholas Cage) and his famous mandolin stationed on the island. Gradually the musical and charismatic Corelli succeeds in wooing the strong-willed Pelagia, but their love affair is interrupted by the war and the brutality of the subsequent Nazi occupiers of the island.
While the film was criticized for the poor chemistry between the lead characters (not to mention Nicholas Cage’s dodgy Italian accent) it won praise for its gorgeous cinematography in which Kefalonia’s landscapes were an undeniable star.
The film’s soundtrack, particularly “Pelagia’s Song”, ties beautifully with the island’s green hills and turquoise seas, and the film is fondly remembered by many a local who were cast as extras and who relished the opportunity to see Kefalonia recreated as it once was before the devastating 1953 earthquake that leveled most of the island (and which is recreated in the film).
The film is based on the novel by the same name by Louis de Bernières.
5. For Your Eyes Only – James Bond in Corfu & Meteora (1981)
The twelfth Bond film – here featuring the late Roger Moore for the fifth time – sees the world’s most famous spy battling baddies and wooing women in numerous countries including Greece. In the film, following the sinking of a British ship in the Ionian, Bond must recover a crucial missile command system from the wreck before it falls into the hands of the Soviets.
A tangled web of double-crossing takes Bond to Corfu and for the denouement to a clifftop monastery in Meteora – one of the most spectacular Greek landscapes ever to feature in a Hollywood film.
But filming there was far from easy as many of the monks were opposed to the shoot and attempted to sabotage filming, ruining shots by hanging their laundry outside and preventing the crew’s helicopters from landing. Moore has also spoken of how his fear of heights made filming the climbing scenes highly nerve-wracking, with such scenes necessitating a few stiff drinks beforehand.
6. The Guns of Navarone – Rhodes (1961)
The film is based on the novel by the same name which was inspired by the WWII Battle of Leros. In the film the Germans have placed massive superguns on the (fictional) island of Navarone in the Aegean. An allied team of Brits and Greeks is assembled with the aim of infiltrating the island and destroying the guns.
The movie was filmed on the island of Rhodes at a time when the island was a popular playground for the international elite. King Paul I and Queen Frederica of Greece visited the during production as did numerous journalists from major international outlets. The Greek naval ship ‘Aetos’ (Eagle) was also used in some scenes.
Through the film and the coverage of the shoot Rhodes gained widespread recognition across the globe, boosting its reputation as a dream destination. Starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn, it is considered the first major blockbuster filmed in Greece. The film went on to pick up multiple Academy Award nominations and won the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture, among other distinctions.
7. Boy on a Dolphin – Hydra (1957)
Phaedra (Sophia Loren), a poor sponge diver from Hydra one day discovers an ancient sculpture of a boy on a dolphin that is said to have magical powers. So with the hope of making some money from it, she heads to Athens to find the American archaeologist James Calder who she ends up developing feelings for. While the American wants to do the right thing and hand it over to the authorities, he faces competition from Victor Parmalee, an unscrupulous art dealer.
A song which Sophia Loren’s character sings in the film, “What is that which is called love” (Ti ‘ne afto pou to lene agapi) remains famous today as a classic romantic Greek song. The film was the first major Hollywood production filmed in Greece and was key in putting Hydra on the tourism map.