"My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?" It is towards this climactic crossroads that the story of Jesus of Nazareth leads, and to which, at the final moment, it again looks back in triumphant retrospect. It is the anguishing crossroads where the eternal questions of faith and doubt become resolved. Written by
Director George Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) in the American Southwest, in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. Pyramid Lake in Nevada represented the Sea of Galilee, Lake Moab in Utah was used to film the Sermon on the Mount, and California's Death Valley was the setting of Jesus' 40-day journey into the wilderness. Stevens explained his decision to use the United States rather than in the Middle East or Europe in 1962. "I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American Southwest," he said. "I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area and it can be done better here." Forty-seven sets were constructed, on location and in Hollywood studios, to accommodate Stevens' vision. See more »
After Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, three men run to a castle on a hill to announce the miracles that Jesus has performed. In the long shot, the first man runs up to the castle entrance into the shade. The shade disappears and reappears between shots. See more »
In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. I am He. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him, was made nothing that has been made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of man. And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not. The greatest story ever told...
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Without a doubt, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most difficult story to ever put on the screen. More blood and ink have been spilled over this one man than any other human being that ever walked this planet, so there really can't be a definitive film on his life that will satisfy everyone. But during the first half of the 1960s, director George Stevens (A PLACE IN THE SUN; SHANE; GIANT) toiled to at least come close in that regard. The result was THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. At a cost of twenty million dollars, it was one of the most expensive films Hollywood had released in that era. At an original length of four hours and twenty minutes, it was one of the longest movies ever. It was also critically savaged and was only a modest commercial success, though not an expensive flop like CLEOPATRA had been.
Although it doesn't stick to ALL the facts of the Good Book, GREATEST STORY does an exquisite job at depicting Jesus life and persecution, his miracles, his death, and his eventual resurrection. Utilizing a massive tome of a script that he co-wrote with James Lee Barrett and Carl Sandburg, among others, Stevens filmed much of the film on location in the Glen Canyon region along the Arizona/Utah border, with the Colorado River as a stand-in for the River Jordan (a move for which Stevens was sharply criticized). Aided by veteran cameraman Loyal Griggs (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS), he also shot scenes in this movie that must rank as being among the most brilliantly filmed ever, including Lazarus' resurrection, and Jesus' being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.
One particular aspect about GREATEST STORY that continues to raise eyebrows and much ire to this day is the fact that Stevens cast much of Hollywood's acting elite in what were essentially walk-ons. This tactic had been done extensively before (THE LONGEST DAY; HOW THE WEST WAS WON), and would be done countless more times in the ensuing decades. To me, the flaw in this technique insofar as this movie goes is not the fact that Stevens succumbed to that temptation, but the fact that the roles he placed some of his actors in were ones they probably weren't cut out to play.
Given the whole weight of the world being placed on him, Max von Sydow did quite an impressive portrayal of Jesus in this film. I would have to rank this as one of the single greatest performances in cinematic history; his credibility (even with the Swedish accent) in the role is, to me, unimpeachable. Stevens also scored by giving Charlton Heston (no stranger to Biblical epics he) the role of John the Baptist, and it still ranks as one of Heston's best. Telly Savalas, years away from "Kojak", makes for a chilling Pontius Pilate. Claude Rains is a supremely nasty King Herod; and Donald Pleasance, with HALLOWEEN still a decade and a half in his future, makes for a deliciously unpleasant Satan.
In other areas, Stevens' all-star casting ranges from sublime (Dorothy McGuire; Roddy McDowall; Sidney Poitier; David McCallum; Jose Ferrer; Victor Buono) to strange (Russell Johnson; Jamie Farr; Sal Mineo; Shelley Winters). But it is in his casting of John Wayne as a Roman centurion at the Crucifixtion that Stevens went overboard (thus the reason for my giving GREATEST STORY an '8' rather than a '10'). To this day, it's hard not to notice the Duke looking out of place as a Roman, and harder still not to groan at the flat way he utters his line ("Truly, this man was the Son of God").
Still, despite the slightly questionable casting and the obvious extreme length of the film, Stevens has indeed fashioned as great a film as there has ever been on a story that has fascinated, frustrated, and even torn the world apart for over two thousand years. How others view it is up for themselves to decide. I myself think that, though slightly imperfect, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD still lives up to its title.
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