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As someone who had read the Bible and knows what goes where, I am
easily critical of too-Liberal Biblical movies, which is usually the
case....except for the last 40-some years when hardly any films were
made on this subject at all.
My point is that this film gets toasted a lot, even by Christians, and I think unfairly. Yes, I became a bit annoyed the first few viewings when I would hear Jesus' speeches way out of order, or a few other things that really weren't 100 percent on the mark....or it just simply dragged.
However, after a long absence and my first look at this on the ultra widescreen (2.75:1) DVD, I was impressed. For instance, the scene with the Last Supper shows everyone at the table, which is impossible to do in a formatted-to-TV mode. There are other similar panoramic shots that are very impressive. gave me a new appreciate of the work director George Stevens did here. Of course, he was one of the best in his profession so it's no surprise this is nicely filmed.
Upon that recent viewing, I was please that none of Jesus' quotes are inaccurate and I have never had a problem with Max Von Sydow's portrayal of Christ. He had a penetrating eyes and spoke his lines with authority. Why he, too, gets bashed by a few people is unfair. He was just fine.
It's a sanitized message, nothing that "preachy" to turn off the unchurched, but I do think it was a bit too slow to go three hours and 20 minutes. In this case, lopping off 15-30 minutes might have helped. It's still worth viewing, no matter what your "religious" views.
On 9/18/00 I received a letter from George Stevens, Jr., replying to my
earlier letter to him encouraging his support of his father's four-hour,
"uncut," version of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" preparing for dvd. I had
suggested in my letter that the original version was undoubtedly his
father's artistic vision and thus was the one worthy of preservation for
Stevens, Jr. responded, in part, " . . . the dvd of 'The Greatest Story Even Told' is underway and MGM-UA has found the original negative of the four-hour version of the film.
There has been a good deal of confusion about the 'official' version of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told.' In recent years I became satisfied that the 3 hour and 20 minute version was the one that my father considered his picture. That came as a result of conversations with Toni Vellani, who worked with my father and has since passed on, and others.
My father, according to Toni, rushed the film for its first two premieres and immediately, at his own initiative, started trimming it to the 3:15 version. He was pleased with this cut. . . .
There was a later shorter version that my father authorized UA to make in an effort to recoup some money -- and that version which ran under 3 hours is of no value at all.
Frankly, I will be interested to see what the additional 40 minutes represents in the long version because, over the years, I've been familiar with the version that runs approximately 3:15. . . ."
This generous explanation from Mr. Stevens, Jr. certainly reveals the intracacies of the purely artistic process as balanced with the business aspect. It also makes one aware that the assumption that the "cut" version was not the preference or the adequate representation of the director, may be inaccurate. In any event at this point, the four-hour dvd version of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" is most eagerly awaited.
There are no real spoilers in this review, for the story is familiar to
Christians of all stripe: the birth, life and mission of Jesus Christ.
This epic-length film moves at a stately pace; some may find it boring,
but I personally like it very much. Stevens does a superb job with this
sensitive material. He cast dozens of famous people, some in cameos and
bit parts, but all lending their talents to this film. The costumes
have an authentic look, and the landscapes are breathtaking---they are
far superior to mere background paintings or sets, and convey a sense
of being right there in Palestine two thousand years ago. The music is
lovely, well-scored and not jarring. Every role is well-cast, from
Charlton Heston as John the Baptist to Telly Sevalas as Pontius Pilate.
Best of all were Donald Pleasance as the devil and the tall, lanky Max
von Sydow as Christ.
The story unfolds like pages turning in a book. Jesus is born, then appears at age thirty to begin his mission. He goes to his cousin John for baptism, then calls men to follow him. Miracles are performed almost in an indirect way: Jesus speaks in Sydow's commanding voice and, instead of focusing on Christ, the camera is fixed on the person receiving the miracle. A notable exception is the raising of Lazarus. Christ pleads in anguish for the revival of his friend, not because the prayer is really necessary, but to cry out his sorrow for losing Lazarus. As God made man, Jesus hurt like we did, and this scene demonstrates this. His teachings are given gently but firmly throughout the movie. Some viewers may be put off by Sydow's almost detached mannerisms, but the quiet dignity actually suits the concept of Christ as teacher on his salvific mission. The gentle mien of Jesus also stands in stark contrast to the times when he does strongly react, whether to the death of Lazarus, to finding moneychangers in the Temple of Jerusalem, or during his passion and crucifixion. The moment when Christ's life ends is stunning; the light goes out in Sydow's clear blue eyes just before he drops his head.
There are other little gems strewn throughout The Greatest Story Ever Told, moments that shine with unexpected clarity. The calling of Matthew, the betrayal and suicide of Judas, the healing of the crippled young man are just a few examples. The Last Supper is very surprising in its similarity to the way a priest consecrates the bread and wine in a modern-day Mass. The famous actors embrace their roles and seem honored to be part of this great project. The dialogue is beautiful for a reason; American poet Carl Sandburg was in charge of rendering the ancient Bible story into modern wording without sacrificing the meaning or power of the original. Dynamics shift like the ebb and flow of tides, floating on the words as well as the events.
Others have done this story, yet this remains my favorite. Unlike the remake of King of Kings(the silent version was way better), it seems authentic in its details---what genius decided to shave Jeffrey Hunter's underarms? And Jesus of Nazareth never quite escapes the shackles of prime-time miniseries/soap opera; its melodramatic and the scene where Mary freaks out is disturbing rather than evoking sympathy from the audience. As for The Passion, it's an awesome attempt to convey just what Jesus endured for our sins, but unsuitable for children or people who are sensitive to excessive violence and gore. So, in conclusion, for Easter viewing, The Greatest Story Ever Told remains my family's favorite version of the life and work of Jesus Christ.
The story of Jesus Christ may be the greatest story ever told, but
George Stevens movie does not provide the most convincing telling of
that story. In spite of beautiful cinematography and music, there is
something missing of the power of other tellings. With the exception of
a couple of scenes, Max von Sydow does not seem quite up to the role,
despite clearly being a good actor. This is not necessarily von Sydow's
fault, as it takes more than great acting to convince the audience that
you are the character. Imagine Ingrid Bergman as Scarlett O'Hara
instead of Vivian Leigh or Gregory Peck as Rhett Butler. Max von Sydow
has moments of passion and succeeds in occasionally moving you, but
somehow seems too much like the actors who play his apostles to
distinguish himself from them, a necessary feat for an actor who
hopefully is surrounded by twelve other good actors at all times.
Max von Sydow's highlights are the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the sequence of his entry into Jerusalem and speech at the temple. In fact, I would say that for those two scenes, he outdoes many of his fellow actors that have donned the robe of Jesus. But two scenes are not enough to carry the movie. In fact, with all my respect to the impressive cast which participated in this movie, Stephens seems to have completely missed the mark when it came to casting a few of the roles: Ed Wynn of "Mary Poppins" fame as the blind man, John Wayne as a Roman centurion, and Shelley Winters as "Woman of no name." On the other hand, few actors can portray the almost fanatic mania of John the Baptist, "a voice crying in the wilderness," like Charlton Heston. Jose Ferrer also puts in a good performance as Herod Antipas, and Roddy McDowall convincing plays both a smart aleck and a reverent follower. His exchange with Jesus over collecting taxes offers one of the few somewhat humorous moments.
It is not a surprise to learn that George Stevens put so much effort into his movie. Like Mel Gibson with "The Passion of the Christ," "Greatest Story" is like a painting, with each stroke carefully put onto the canvas. However, unlike Gibson, whose characters seem right out of 1st Century Judah, there is modern quality to Stephens film. There are, however, more positive aspects to this film than negative. Besides the cinematography and the wise choice of Hendel's beautiful "Messiah", other positives are showing Mary Madgelene as traveling with the apostles (there is even a wonderful little scene where Mary annoints Jesus with oil which shows a kind of intimacy between them lacking from other versions of the story).
While some commentators have criticized the screenplay, I think it is one of the best. As much as it pains me to say this, I think casting alone made this movie less powerful. Still I recommend that everyone see it at least once.
When first released George Stevens's version of the Gospel was
dismissed as too long, too reverential, too soon after the sound
version of The King of Kings was released, and too many stars in the
cast taking one's attention from the story.
Too some degree that is true, but being a stargazer myself I'll never find fault with a film for that. And who knew in 1965 that we would get The Last Temptation of Christ and the Passion of the Christ in our future. George Stevens's film is looking pretty good now.
No doubt about the presence of a whole lot of movie names helped bring in the bucks. But with one glaring exception you do pay attention to the roles, not who's playing them. Some parts are pretty substantial. Charlton Heston as John the Baptist has the longest amount of screen time other than Von Sydow. Also given a large amount of time is Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary and Donald Pleasance as the Prince of Darkness.
The personification of the Devil is something Mel Gibson borrowed for his film. Personally I think Donald Pleasance is quite a bit better than what Gibson did.
Other stars had smaller roles. Sidney Poitier played a silent part as Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus with his cross on the way to Calvary. You could not have gotten away with an all white cast in a film like this by 1965. A whole group of players from previous Stevens films got some bit parts and more like Van Heflin, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo, and Ed Wynn.
One star Joseph Schildkraut had the rare distinction of playing in both Cecil B. DeMille's silent King of Kings and this film. Schildkraut played Judas for DeMille and is seen as Nicodemus here. This was Schildkraut's last film. An interesting double distinction for a man who came from a prominent Jewish theatrical family.
One big glaring error though. Stevens should never have cast John Wayne as the Roman Centurion who supervising the crucifixion. Wayne is seen in passing through out the journey to Calvary, but with no dialog. At the moment of Jesus's death with the drama unfolding it was just wrong to have that recognizable a voice utter, "truly that man was the son of God." Instead of concentrating on the story the audience gets distracted and in the theaters the whispers went up with 'ooh, that's John Wayne.'
Arizona served as the location for ancient Judea. Unlike DeMille in The Ten Commandments, Stevens concentrated on the beauty of the location as opposed to filling the screen with people. It got filled enough with the story. You might recognize the Grand Canyon as the backdrop for the sermon on the mount scene. Of course Handel's Messiah is almost obligatory for these films and it's done well here.
One scene that you will not forget comes at the end of the first act, the raising of Lazarus who is played by Michael Tolan. His sisters, Mary and Martha, are played by Ina Balin and Janet Margolin. They had shown Jesus and the disciples hospitality earlier. When Lazarus is taken ill, Mary and Margaret, go after Jesus to bring him back. It is too late, Lazarus has died and he's in his tomb. Or so everyone thinks. The sparse dialog, the photography, and the background music are so well done at this point the most hard hearted nonbeliever will pause.
Of course most of the name players in The Greatest Story Ever Told are no longer with us so the cameos don't mean as much today. It is probably better in that an audience of today can concentrate on the story without even the most minimal interference of recognition. And they can concentrate on the story without either alternate realities as in The Last Temptation of Christ or all the gore and violence of Mel Gibson's epic. Definitely worth a look by today's contemporary audience.
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.
The reasons for the sacrificial well in the city's temple have to do with
the archaeological research of the time the movie was made. Not much, then
or now, is really known about the Temple, except that Herod the Great
(played by Claude Rains) built it to largely to appease the Roman
conquerors. The Temple had Grecian (not Hebraic) architecture and
supposedly had a well for animal sacrifices. The Hebrews were a very
sophisticated ancient people who mostly, by that time, considered themselves
above animal sacrifices--however much had been written about such practices
in their earlier times, like the days of Genesis, Exodus, etc. While it may
have appeased Romans, it probably did not please Herod's own
This is a carefully made motion picture. If one finds it too subdued, at least it doesn't suffer from the highflown melodramatics that other Christ movies have. Speaking as someone who is not a Christian, I find it deeply moving.
While there were a few worthwhile performances in this film, it simply
does not come close to living up to the title. The musical score was
draggy or unoriginal, and the loading down of the film with every
Hollywood star they could cram into the film just detracted greatly
from the film. Von Sydow's Jesus was wooden and one dimensional. In the
earlier released "King of Kings" Jeff Hunter gave you a Christ that was
filled with the emotions and compassion of the son of God, while in
this version it just wasn't there. Charlton Heston's John the Baptist
was one of the few good things about the film, while, as much as I
respect John Wayne as a star, his one line cameo was laughable and so
unbelievable as to make one cringe. Claude Rains did shine out as Herod
the great, while Telly Savalis might as well have been reading lines
It is not the worst film of all time. But the attempt to recapture the grandeur of the Bible Epic days was way lost here.
I just got my first DVD payer after holding out for year and have become a
total convert. I am watching some of the old classics of my youth, both to
see them again in mint condition and to have a look at all the special
features, including the documentaries and commentaries. Presently I'm doing
a festival of the great biblical epics of the 50's and 60's. My local video
store had THE ROBE, (1953), BEN-HUR (1959), CLEOPATRA, (1963) and THE
GREATST STORY EVER TOLD, (1965-let's call it TGSET). I thought I'd write a
joint review comparing them.
THE ROBE was done at the tail end of the old Hollywood, a studio production whereas these others were all filmed primarily on location with the international casts and crews we often saw making movies in the later era. But THE ROBE has all the Hollywood know-how we've come to expect. Particularly important was the pacing. It's a history lesson and a reverent film but it's also an entertainment. Young Richard Burton, (he was about 28) shows the impressive voice and passionate style that made him a name actor in the next decade, (he was nominated for an Oscar). Jean Simmons is very good and the smaller parts are well cast, particularly Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, who in once scene leave much more of an impression than Frank Thring or Telly Savalas, who do the same role in BEN-HUR and TGSET, respectively.
But BEN-HUR is clearly the pick of the litter. This is true epic, full of glorious action scenes including the justly famous chariot race. But, as directed by William Wyler, it's also a very thoughtful film. Charlton Heston is excellent as the passionate and idealistic hero. Stephen Boyd is my all-time favorite movie villain. He's the one who should have won the supporting actor Oscar, not Hugh Griffith for his Arab businessman. But it's Wyler who carries the day. Noted primarily as a director of actors, (and especially actresses), he was by this stage in his carrier looking for challenges. He'd never directed an epic before. By bringing to the mix his sense for dialog and characterization, eh give this a depth you can't find in something direct by DeMille, for example, who was more a director of pageants than movies. His use of water as constant symbolism for cleaning the body and spirit is brilliant and memorable.
Joseph Mankiewicz was also known for making more intimate films than CLEOPATRA, (which is not quite biblical but close enough). Like Wyler, he brings to the project something a normal director of epics would not have and CLEOPATRA is a much more intimate film than I remembered. Sure there is the absurdly overdone entrance into Rome and the Battle of Actium. But most of the scenes take place in doors and looked like a filmed record of a stage play. Both Burton and Rex Harrison are excellent in their roles and Liz Taylor is fine, (and fine looking), as well, although I agree with suggestions that Sophia Loren would have been a better choice being more obviously Mediterranean. Like Martin Landau and others interviewed, I would like to see some effort to restore, as best as possible, the two missing hours of this film and its presentation in the two parts Mankiewicz intended, perhaps on one of the movie channels. Even in its present form, the film is better than I remembered.
TGSET may be the greatest story every told but this is surely not the greatest telling of it. The film is long, s..l..o..w and mournful. It's like sitting through a three hour wake. The only scenes where anybody shows any joy are the resurrection scenes of Lazarus and Christ at the end. One scene is accompanied by the disciples singing the same mournful hymn over and over again. I don't think I would want to hang out with these guys for very long. The scenes in THE ROBE where Burton talks to the people who were touched by their relationship with Jesus and in BEN-HUR where he offers the hero water and where he is given it in return, are much more moving that Max Von Sydow's grim sermons in TGSET. We never see the results of living the way eh suggests. And the miracle of resurrections seems an almost pointless substitute. If Jesus's soul has gone to join his father in Heaven, what difference does it make that his grave no longer holds his physical body?
TGSET is filmed not in the Holy Land but in the deserts of Arizona and Utah, (Christ's visit to Utah must have pleased the Mormons.) The place looks totally desolate, such that no one would ever want to live there. Indeed, the area was flooded by a damn project shortly after film was completed. Too bad they weren't doing NOAH'S ARK or the TEN COMMANDMENTS. The actors are totally dwarfed by the surrounding scenery. It makes them and their story look temporary, not everlasting. The eclectic cast with its all-star cameos was considered something of a joke in it's time. At the Last Supper, TV Land viewers can see Illya Kuryakin, Baretta and Klinger! And it's fun to see Ingmar Bergman's knight from `THE SEVENTH SEAL doing scenes with Ed Wynn, Vaudeville's `Perfect Fool'. George Stevens is quoted as saying that someday, people viewing this film will not know who the actors were and will just see the characters. He's right. They all blend in together today. The performances are all very good, except for John Wayne's gargling of `Truly, this man was the Son of God', which, as I recall, produced audible laughter in the theater in 1965 and still seems wildly inappropriate today. I remember feeling that Charlton Heston walked away with the film as John the Baptist and he still does four decades later. The acting isn't the problem with the film. It's the pace and the setting.
An often under-rated attempt at the life of Christ, George Stevens' modestly titled epic was long, beautifully photographed and more than a little deferential to our saviour but it managed to keep my interest. Most of the film's critics believe the incessant cameos ruin it - though I think the brash, mainly American contingent make quite an accurate portrayal of humanity opposite serene Swede Max von Sydow. And it is to Him the film belongs. His first english-language film & one he admits isn't a masterpiece is notable for a performance from a man who played Jesus as a man and not as a God. Whatever, he was so good he almost converted this hardened atheist.
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