Review: ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’

The Greatest Story Ever Told

George Stevens Jr. confided prior to a recent rare theatrical screening of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" that he hoped his father's massive rendition of the life of Christ might yet one day find its proper time and audience. Unfortunately, that moment probably existed only when the film was conceived, in 1959. But for viewers partial to antiquity and the pre-"Gladiator" epic format, "Greatest Story" is exceedingly well represented in this two-disc DVD.

George Stevens Jr. confided prior to a recent rare theatrical screening of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” that he hoped that his father’s massive rendition of the life of Christ might yet one day find its proper time and audience. Unfortunately, that moment probably existed only when the film was conceived, in 1959; by the time it was finally released six years later, its achingly slow pace and cautiously conservative piety were received in such muted fashion by critics and the public that the picture all but finished off the epic biblical genre that had prevailed in Hollywood since “Quo Vadis” and “The Robe” in the early ’50s.

Stevens’ stately, tableaux-dominated style could not be more antithetical to contemporary fashion. But for viewers partial to antiquity and the pre-“Gladiator” epic format, “Greatest Story” is exceedingly well represented in this two-disc DVD. MGM Home Entertainment claims to have spent $500,000 restoring the film for the occasion, re-timing the original 65mm negative, creating a new 65mm interpositive and presenting it in its original Ultra Panavision 70 2.75:1 aspect ratio (in its initial roadshow engagements, pic was projected in single-lens Cinerama). Version also retains the original six-track stereo.

The DVD very accurately reflects the pastel color schemes, dominated by shades of white and blue, the magnificent American Southwest scenery and the careful photographic compositions that so consciously reflect many aspects of Christian religious art, ranging from the Byzantine to Da Vinci and El Greco.

The 193-minute running time, plus six minutes of Overture, Entr’acte and Exit music, reps what most audiences saw during the first wave of release. When Variety reviewed it on Feb. 17, 1965, pic ran 225 minutes, but Stevens quickly cut it by about a half-hour. For subsequent wide release and television showings, the film was hacked down to 141 minutes, with major sequences entirely eliminated. (In Leonard Maltin’s “Movie & Video Guide,” an original 260-minute version is cited, but when and where this might have been shown remains a mystery.)

DVD offers up one “deleted scene,” a very slightly different version of Jesus carrying the cross intercut with Judas’ suicide, but what it most usefully might have provided is the material cut from the 225-minute version, if it still exists.

As it is, most valuable bonus on disc two is Michael M. Arick’s documentary, “He Walks in Beauty,” about the making of “Greatest Story” (Morton Heilig’s previously seen “Making Of” docu, “Filmmaker,” is also included, along with an original theatrical trailer and still photo gallery).

Contents are all interesting: Behind-the-scenes glimpses of Stevens visiting the Holy Land in 1960, scouting locations, conducting story conferences and directing on a production whose schedule ballooned from three to nine months and whose budget ran up to $20 million, making it by far the most expensive picture shot in the U.S. up to that time.

The daunting logistics are also evident, what with the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of extras that had to be fed, housed and dressed at a compound built at what was shortly to become Lake Powell in Arizona (as Charlton Heston notes, it is odd to think that most of the sets for the film are now under 400 feet of water).

But the most initially disorienting aspect of this “new” documentary is that the on-camera participants — including Heston, Max Von Sydow, Shelley Winters — look so young, and that some of them — notably, directors Rouben Mamoulian and Fred Zinnemann — are dead. Reason for this becomes apparent in the fine print of the end credits — these interviews were shot in 1982-83, but not used, for Stevens Jr.’s excellent documentary about his dad.

Present docu takes full value from this rich trove, with Heston offering some keen insights into Stevens’ personality and methods and Von Sydow candidly acknowledging his initial hesitations about taking the leading role and very clearly explaining the director’s painstaking manner of shooting a scene, beginning with master shots from every angle and then slowly breaking it down until he finished with close-ups of every character involved.

There are glancing references to the “terrible pressure” Stevens was under by the end due to the cost overruns, as well as to his deteriorating physical condition. But, unfortunately, no attempt is made to assess the picture, to put it in the context of Stevens’ career or the rapidly changing landscape of the film business and public tastes at the time. It is left to Von Sydow to venture that the film was “tough” but “very good,” and that he thinks Stevens “came close to his vision.”

Criticized upon its release for the safe, ecumenical nature of its storytelling, for its highly deliberate pace and, above all, for the distracting star cameos (John Wayne, Pat Boone, Carroll Baker, Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, et. al.) in minor parts, “Greatest Story” today appears undeniably bloated, dramatically and verbally undernourished in the script department and misguided in some of its fundamental creative decisions, such as its decorous, well-laundered physical appointments, the casting of blandly Anglo-looking actors as the disciples and the static, all-too-artfully arranged blocking of the extras.

And yet, aside from the sheer stature and magnificence of the production, something which was extreme even at the time and could never be reproduced today, there is some manner of deep inner conviction, a resoluteness and obstinance, an immovable dedication to a particular interpretation of Jesus as man and savior, that engages fascination and admiration.

If Zeffirelli’s TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” is the ultimate Catholic film version of Christ’s life, then “Greatest Story” represents the definitive Protestant rendition in its solemn restraint and academic fastidiousness.

Beyond this are the picture’s two Olympian personal contributions, those of Von Sydow and composer Alfred Newman. Striding amid the extras, bit players and miscast celebrities, the Swedish actor then known only for his Ingmar Bergman roles conveys calm, anger, authority and a blessed apartness in equal measure, and one sees what Heston means when he says, in the docu regarding Von Sydow’s intensity in the raising of Lazarus scene, “I’ve never seen better acting on film.” And could it be that Stevens employed the trick of never allowing Von Sydow to blink on camera? He never seems to, which significantly increases the intensity and subsconscious otherworldliness of his gaze.

And Newman, employing a mournful main theme that hauntingly echoes Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and also recycles a portion of his music for “The Robe,” created a score that, in its magnificent spirituality, by itself illustrates the gulf between aesthetic ideals in film then and now.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Release: March 6, 2001


An MGM Home Entertainment release of the 1965 United Artists film directed by George Stevens. Screenplay, James Lee Barrett, Stevens.


With: Max Von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Charlton Heston, Dorothy McGuire, Claude Rains, Telly Savalas.

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