A majestic, beautifully filmed epic
Alejandra Vernon | Long Beach, California | 07/16/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film is often compared with the 1961 "King of Kings", and "Jesus of Nazareth", but this one is by far my favorite of the three, because of the exquisite beauty of it, and Max von Sydow's powerful portrayal of Jesus; his performance has a strength and boldness that is lacking in the other two, and therefore for me much more believable. Sydow was only known to fans of Ingmar Bergman's films at the time, having starred in the Swedish director's "The Seventh Seal" among others, and was a surprise choice to play Jesus, and a good one. He does a marvelous job, and I especially like the scene after Lazarus has died...it is brilliant, and very moving.George Stevens' vision of the story has a stark majesty, and is taken at a leisurely pace; it is also quite verbal, with some of the major events in the gospels not pictured, but spoken of instead.
Filmed in Arizona and Utah, the cinematography by Loyal Griggs, who took over from William Mellor when Mellor passed away during filming, is glorious. There are scenes that have the composition and balance a fine painting, with extraordinary detail, often framed by doorways or windows, and it's a film I never tire of just looking at. Graphic artists should make a point to see this film, as there is much that can be learned from it. Alfred Newman also wrote a lovely score (with a little help from G. F. Handel) which adds to the aesthetic appeal of this film.In the huge star-studded cast, some performances are truly memorable, like Claude Rains as a bitter and devious Herod, and Jose Ferrer excellent as his son Herod Antipas; Charlton Heston's ferocious, wild-man John the Baptist is impassioned and perhaps more like the actual Baptist than some of the tamer portrayals.With its huge budget (over 20 million in 1965 dollars) it was a critical and commercial failure when it was released, but it has had a long life, and is being watched today while some successful films of the mid-'60s quite forgotten, and will continue to be appreciated by everyone who likes Bible epics. It was however, nominated for 4 Academy Awards: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score, losing out in all those categories to "Doctor Zhivago". There is "artistic license" taken with the story, but overall, it is a reverential, fairly accurate telling.
Total running time is 196 minutes."
The most reverential film on the story of Jesus
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 10/11/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
""The Greatest Story Ever Told" is certainly the most reverential treatment of the life of Jesus. The 1965 movie was based on the book by Fulton Oursler, which integrated the four Gospels into a single narrative. To appreciate this task just look at the different versions of what Jesus said on the cross according to each Gospel. Reconciling the various versions is not an easy task and while viewers may question some of the specific choices, the only really significant alteration is the death of Judas by throwing himself into the sacrificial pit of the Great Temple, a symbolism that is unnecessarily heavy handed.The choice of Max Von Sydow to play Jesus is an interesting selection to say the least. His slight Swedish accent and closely cropped beard are certainly in keeping with the reverential tone of the film, but I can not help wondering if this was something of a reaction to the more populist Jesus portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings." After all, this was 1965 and the Beatles invasion was underway making male hair length a hot issue. This is a Jesus who is too solemn and too sedate for the most part. There is a nice moment where one of the new disciples comments that he likes Jesus' name. The smile and "Thank you" that follow are one of the few glimpses of the charisma of the man from Galilee. The strength of the film is in the gorgeous cinematography by William C. Mellor (who died on the set of a heart attack) and Loyal Griggs, and scene composition under the direction of George Stevens. The opening narration goes from the opening verses of John shot over ancient Christian murals to a shot of the manager, ending with a shot of the hand of the baby Jesus as the narrator announces in a most simple manner, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." The juxtaposition of images and moments from the live of Jesus is prevalent throughout the film. When Mary and Joseph return from Egypt they travel the road to Nazareth that is lined with the crucified victims of the Roman occupation. The voice of John the Baptist is first heard over a series of aerial shots covering the many miles traveled by all those who came to hear him make straight the way of the Lord.Stevens shows a deft touch in the large scenes involving crowds. The resurrection of Lazarus is down in a long shot, with the focus more on the faces of those who are witnessing the miracle rather than on the actual emergence from the tomb. To the finale of the Hallelujah Chorus a trio of the faithful ran across the plain to the gates of Jerusalem to spread the good news. There is also a wonderful scene of the confrontation between the Roman soldiers and the crowd that had come to the Temple to hear Jesus preach at night. The film also contains some nice small touches. When Pilate presents Jesus to the people, the figure of Satan strides through the crowd to utter the first demand for crucifixion. When Mary Magdalene remembers the promise of the resurrection and Thomas proclaims his disbelief, Peter looks up and sees the smiling face of Lazarus. The musical score by Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer and Fred Steiner is wonderfully attuned to what is on the screen. The main problem is not that there are so many stars in this film-Charlton Heston is an imposing John the Baptist, and Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Sal Mineo as Uriah, and Van Heflin as Bar Amand all perform admirably-but rather the cameo appearances that invariably detract from the moment. It is one thing to recognize David McCallum, Jamie Farr and Russell Johnson in "before they were stars" roles, but it is quite another to suddenly see Sidney Portier help carry the cross or John Wayne silhouetted against the darkening sky as a Roman Centurion. While such cameos may have worked in "The Longest Day" or "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" during the heyday of the fad, they most certainly do not work in this film. I was surprised to learn this movie was filmed around the Lake Powell region of Arizona, having always assumed it had been filmed in the Holy Land. I would be interested to know which scenes were directed without credit by David Lean (who was finishing up "Doctor Zhivago" at the time) and Jean Negulesco ("Johnny Belinda" and the 1953 "Titanic"). I want to resist the impulse to credit my favorite scenes to Lean rather than Stevens. The reverential tone of the film ends up hurting the pacing so that it seems overlong at 3 hours and 14 minutes. Ultimately I prefer the vitality of Zefferelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" and the monumental performance of Robert Powell as the quintessential Jesus. But there are several lovely moments in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and I always end up screening one version at Christmas and the other at Easter. The print obviously needs to be RESTORED and the film really should be seen in the widescreen format, although that makes the credits impossible to read."
A huge sprawling Biblical epic
T O'Brien | Chicago, Il United States | 08/16/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Greatest Story Ever Told is a huge epic movie that boasts an impressive cast full of Hollywood notables. The movie follows the life of Jesus from his birth in a stable in Bethlehem to his teachings with his disciples all the way to his crucifixion and Resurrection. Because the film is so huge, many parts of the life of Jesus are just skipped over and talked about later by characters who saw it happen or heard about it. This is surprisingly effective to show how quickly Jesus' notoriety spread throughout the area. There are several very good scenes done with no sound except for Alfred Newman's fantastic score even though we know people in the background are screaming at Jesus as he walks by carrying the cross. One particularly effective scene involves Simon of Cyrene, played by Simon Poitier, helping Jesus carry the cross after he has fallen. As Jesus gets up, he grabs onto Simon's arm who helps him go on. It is a very short scene, but nonetheless very moving. The cast for this movie could go on for pages. Max von Sydow gives an excellent performance as Jesus Christ, although he might not look like the usually accepted idea of Jesus. Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas also give very good performances as John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate. The film also stars David McCallum as Judas, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Dorothy McGuire as Mary, Martin Landau as Ciaphias, Donald Pleasence as Satan(although he is credited as the Dark Hermit), and many others. The film also stars Michael Anderson JR, Roddy McDowall, Victor Buono, Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo, Ina Balin, Carroll Baker, Van Heflin, Jamie Farr, and so many more. There are several very small cameos most notably John Wayne, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, and Claude Rains all of which are pretty good for how small they are. The Special Edition DVD offers the widescreen presentation, theatrical trailer, making of documentary, an altered scene during the crucifixion scene, still gallery, and a filmmaker's documentary. For an excellent look at the life of Jesus, if somewhat sanitized, check out The Greatest Story Ever Told!"