The plot is set in the Cretan uprising of 1889. The central character, a wild, insubordinate warrior named Kapetan (rebel leader) Michalis, has sworn to remain unshaven and dressed in black, and not to laugh until Crete has been freed. But when he meets Emine, wife of his blood brother Nurey Bey, he is overcome by a "new demon"; for all his efforts, he cannot get her out of his mind.
While Kapetan Michalis struggles with his demon, Nurey Bey challenges Manoussakas to a duel to avenge his father's death. He kills Manoussakas, but is wounded in the genitals. This wound heals, but Nurey Bey commits suicide, being unable to bear the disdain and pity Emine shows him over his mutilation, while she becomes mistress to Kapetan Polyxigis. News of Nurey Bey's death adds to the already charged atmosphere in Megalo Kastro, where news of skirmishes and riots all over the island arrive daily.
On the instigation of the agas, Turkish soldiers pour into the streets to wreak carnage and set fire to the city. A few days later, the revolution breaks out. War is raging and the Turks lay siege to the Monastery of Christ the Lord. At the same time, Emine readies herself to be baptized a Christian, but Kapetan Michalis arranges that she is kidnapped and hidden in a house belonging to one of his relatives. On the most decisive night in the entire siege, he leaves the monastery to go and kill Emine; on his return he finds it has been set ablaze.
Shortly afterwards, Kosmas (son of Manoussakas and nephew of of Kapetan Michalis) arrives on Crete, bringing word to the revolutionaries that others have capitulated. One by one the rebel leaders lay down their arms, but Kapetan Michalis refuses to yield. Kosmas goes to his hideaway to bring him round, but ends up staying, having felt the shadow of his own father rise up within himself. In the heat of battle, he realises that Kapetan Michalis has freed himself of all fears and hopes. Shortly afterwards, uncle and nephew fall dead during the final Turkish assault.
The idea for the novel appears to have existed since 1929, when Kazantzakis wrote Kapétan Élia in French while at Gottesgab. In 1936, this time on Aegina, he started work on Mon père, also in French; this he reworked in 1940.
A few years later, while in Cambridge in 1946, he began the novel O aniforos [The Ascent], with resistance to the Germans as its frame of reference; an excerpt entitled "Ο Thanatos tou papou", ["Grandfather's death"] appeared in Nea Estia in 1947. O kapetan Michalis [Kapetan Michalis, which appeared in English as Freedom and Death] was written from 1949 to 1950 in Antibes.
The final version incorporated some pages from previous drafts, as well as some revised descriptions of the devastated villages and grief-stricken population that had been included in the Report of the Central Committee for the Verification of Atrocities on Crete (1945). Part of Kazantzakis' impressions from his tour of post-occupation Crete was published in an article entitled "Crete" in Nea Estia literary magazine, issue 66 (Christmas 1959) 39-40.
- N. Kazantzakis, O kapetan Michalis, Athens: Mavridis 1953
- N. Kazantzakis, O kapetan Michalis, Athens: Difros 1955, 1957. The subtitle "Freedom or Death" and a prologue were added to the 1955 edition.
- N. Kazantzakis, O kapetan Michalis, Athens: Estia 1959
- N. Kazantzakis, O kapetan Michalis, Athens: Eleni Kazantzakis 1964 (and subsequent editions)
Foreign editions & translations
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Freiheit oder Tod, translated into German by Helmut von den Steinen, Berlin/Grunewald: Herbig 1954, 1955. Bochum: Deutscher Buchklub 1957. Munich/Berlin: Herbig 1973, 1976, 1977. Berlin: Buchklub/Volk und Welt 1973, 1977 [title: Kapitän Michalis]. Hamburg: Rowohlt 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987. Munich: Heyne 1977, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985. Munich: Herbig 1989. Frankfurt/Berlin: Ullstein 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Vapaus tai Kuolema, translated into Finnish by Elvi Sinervo, Helsinki: Kustannusokeylitio Tamni 1953, 1955, 1981
- Niko Kazantzakis, Frihet eller död, translated into Swedish by Börje Knös, Stockholm: Ljus 1955
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Frihet eller død, translated into Norwegian by Leif Kristiansen, Oslo: Tanum 1955
- Niko Kazantzakis, Frihed eller død, translated into Danish by Karl Hornelund, Copenhagen: Jespersen og Pio 1955
- Niko Kazantzakis, Kapitein Michalis, translated into Dutch by H.C.M. Edelman, Utrecht: De Fontein 1955, 1958, 1959, 1978. Utrecht/Baarn: De Fontein 1978
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Freedom or Death, translated into English by Jonathan Griffin, with a prologue by A. den Doolaard, New York: Simon and Schuster 1955, 1956, 1961. Simon and Schuster/Ballantine Books 1965. Simon and Schuster 1966, 1983
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Freedom and Death, translated into English by Jonathan Griffin Oxford: Cassirer 1956. Oxford: Cassirer / London: Faber 1966, 1990
- Nikos Kazantzakis, La Liberté ou La Mort, translated into French by Gisèle Prassinos and Pierre Fridas, Paris: Plon 1956, 1961, 1966, 1969, 1979
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitan Mihalis, translated into Slovenian by Jose Udović, Ljubljana: Cankarjevna 1956, 1976, 1989
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Frelsiğ eğa daudann, translated into Icelandic by Skúli Bjarkan, Reykjavík: Almenna bokafelagid 1957
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Libertad o muerte, translated into Spanish by Rosa Chacel, Buenos Aires: Carlos Lohlé 1957, 1963
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Liberdade ou morte, translated into Portuguese by Maria Franco, Lisbon: Cor 1958, 1963
- Nikosz Kazantzakisz, Mihálisz kapitány, translated into Hungarian by Abody Béla, with illustrations by Bartha László, Budapest: Európa 1958
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Capitan Michele, translated into Italian by Edvige Levi Gunalachi, Milan: Martello 1959
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapetan Michal, translated into Polish by Katarzyna Witwicka, Warsaw: Czytelnik 1960
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitán Michalis: Svoboda, nebo smrt, translated into Czech by František Štuřík and Mariana Stříbrná, Prague: Československý spisovatel 1960
- Nikos Kazandzakis, Kapitan Mikhalis, translated into Bulgarian by Georgi Kufov, Sofia: Narodna Kultura 1961, 1978
- Nikos Kazantzakis (Nikv im Kazanzak), Hyrvt Mvt romz, translated into Hebrew, Tel Aviv: Am Oved 1963
- Nikos Kazandzakis, Kapitan Mihalis: Svoboda abo smert, translated into Russian by Ivan Hrechanivs'ky, Viktoriia and Iannis Mochos, Kiev: Vydavnytstvo Khudozhn'oi Literatury "Dnipro" 1965, 1975
- Nikos Kazancakis, Ya hürriyet ya ölüm (Kapetan Mihalis), translated into Turkish by Nevzat Hatko, Istanbul: Ararat 1967
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitán Michalis: Sloboda, alebo smrť, translated into Slovenian by Felicita Kučerová, Bratislava: Slov. spis. 1970
- Nikus Kazantzakis, Azadi ya marg, translated into Farsi by Muhammad Qazi, Tehran: Khvarazmi 1973
- Niko Kazanzaqi, Ja vdekje, ja liri!, translated into Albanian by Enver Fico, with a prologue by Fatmir Gjata, Tirana: Shtepia Botuese "Naim Frasheri" 1973
- Nikos Kazantzakis, al-Hurriya wa-l-maut, translated into Arabic, Cairo: al-Hay'a 1976
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitan Mihalis, translated into Slovenian by Anton Ocvirk, Ljubljana: Cankarjevna 1976
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitán Michalis: Svobodu, nebo smrt!, translated into Czech by František Štuřík, Luděk Kubišta, Růžena Dostálová, Prague: Odeon 1980
- Nikos Kazantzakis (Ni Kazanzaji), Zi you huo si wang [=Freedom and Death], translated into Chinese by Wang Zhenji yi, Peking: Wai guo wen xue chu ban she 1982
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapetan Mikhalis, translated into Slav Macedonian, Skopje: Misla 1982
- Nikos Kazancakis, Kaptan Mihalis, translated into Turkish by Nevzat Hatko, Istanbul: Can 1988, 1993
- Nikos Kazanzaqis, Kapedan Mihali, translated into Albanian by Enver Fico, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1992, 1993
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Azadi ya marg, translated into Arabic by Karimi Hisami, Iraq: Wazarati Roshinbiri 1997
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Kapitonas Michalis, translated into Lithuanian by Diana Bučiūtė, Vilnius: Vaga 2002
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Libertate sau Moarte, translated into Romanian by Pericle Martinescu, Bucharest: Tineretului (undated)
- N. Chatziskos Troupe, adapted by Kostas Kotzias and Gerasimos Stavrou, music by Alekos Xenou, 1959
- Manos Katrakis Greek Popular Theatre, adapted by Kostas Kotzias and Gerasimos Stavrou, directed by Manos Katrakis, music by Manos Hatjidakis, 1966
- Vladimiros Kafkaridis Troupe, adapted by (attributed to) V. Kafkaridis, Cyprus 1971
- Arma Thespidos, adapted by Kostas Kotzias and Gerasimos Stavrou, directed by Takis Mouzenidis, music by Yiannis Kosmopoulos, 1980-1981
- Yiannis Voglis Troupe, adapted by Kostas Kolotas, 1983
- Manos Hatjidakis, O kapetan Michalis, music for the performance by the Greek Popular Theatre, Columbia 1966, 1975. Lyra 1996. Minos EMI 1995, 2000 (on CD)