Lavishly produced at a cost exceeding $20 million dollars (a monumental sum then), George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) began its gestation as a stoic character study of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Written by Stevens and James Lee Barrett, who loosely based their lengthy narrative on 1947's series of half hour radio episodes derived from the Gospels, and, from the 1949 novelized adaptation by Fulton Oursler, there's little to deny that the resulting 199 minute film contains many awe-inspiring sequences, superbly rendered in stylized melodrama.
The almost monochromatic costumes and 47 full size sets suggest a more reserved and probably more realistic setting to the narrative, in stark contrast to all those glamorous trappings of an epic made by Cecil B. De Mille (The Ten Commandments) or even William Wyler (Ben-Hur). This is all to the good. Exploiting the wilds of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah for the Holy Land, Steven's film has a strange timelessness that arguably has not dated, especially when compared to other Bible/fiction epics made during the 1950s and early 60s.
If nothing else, this is a very serious attempt at recreating a living testament to Jesus; perhaps too serious. For although Loyal Griggs and William C. Mellor's cinematography extols the vastness of its subject matter with meticulous sincerity, there really is nothing that can salvage the dragging pace of the story. Worse, Stevens (a director I greatly admires) seems incapable of generating any intimacy between the edges of the vast Super Panavision 70mm frame. We either get a series of long master shots with thousands of tiny extras scattered about or extreme close ups of talking heads. Medium reverse shots, where most dialogue sequences in other films generally play, seem to have been forgotten or discarded.
And then, there are the cameos to contend with; a Michael Todd inspired ensemble of famous faces paraded in rapid succession before the camera to suggest star power comparable with the film’s gargantuan size. Casting then relative unknown Max Von Sidow as Jesus was a step in the right direction. Even now, after all of Sidow's many other accomplishments, he appears if not entirely in continence, then at least in manner and, dare we say, 'spirit', to be an inspired Christ-like figure that the audience can believe. Not so much sustained believability derives from the rest of the cast, particularly Telly Savalas's Pontius Pilate, played embarrassingly as a thug straight from the Bronx or Ed Wyn's Old Aram whom we might expect to burst into song and a comedy skit about the plagues as he emotes real tears from his prosthetic contact lens.
We begin in a manger with the ‘immaculate conception’ of Baby Jesus to Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and Joseph (Robert Loggia). King Herod (Claude Rains) fools the Three Wise Men into alerting him to the whereabouts of the child, presumably so he too may be permitted to worship. Instead, Herod sends his armed minions to Bethlehem to murder all the young male children and rid himself of the prophecy that a King of Kings has come to free all men from bondage. The slaughter proves a hollow victory, for as soon as he is told by the captain of his guard that his commands have been carried out, Herod dies on his throne. His son, Herod Antipas (Jose Ferrer) inherits a crumbling empire whose inhabitants threaten to overtake him during a revolt. As such, Herod Antipas is forced to place his kingdom under Roman regency controlled by Pontius Pilate.
Exiled from Bethlehem, Antipas is counseled by Caiaphas (Martin Landau) and Sorak (Victor Buono), advisors who prove lethal to his limited authority but who also point the finger at John the Baptist (Charleton Heston) as a possible threat from afar. John is brought before Antipas and beheaded. From here, the film fast tracks to the life of the adult Jesus (Max Von Sidow), presumably because the gospel does not mark much in the way of what happened between Christ's birth and his debut into manhood.
Having conquered temptation in the form of The Dark Hermit (a.k.a. Satin played by Donald Pleasence), Jesus begins to amass his disciples out of the wilderness; James (Michael Anderson Jr.), Matthew (Roddy McDowell), Judas (David McCallum), Peter (Gary Raymond) and John (John Considine). They travel to many cities inspiring blind devotion particularly after Jesus heals a woman (Shelley Winters) of leprosy, restores sight to Old Aram (Ed Wynn) and stirs the cripple, Uriah (Sal Mineo) to walk. These miracles beyond human suffrage are an act of faith, so Jesus teaches. Yet, with each laying of hands Jesus acquires the more profound moniker of a spiritual healer.
After Jesus resurrects Lazarus (Michael Tolan) from the dead, he is condemned by Caiaphas for witchcraft, sedition and blasphemy. Caiaphas rounds up ministers who are loyal to him and together they hold a secret trial that finds Jesus guilty of these crimes. One minister, Nicodemus (Joseph Schildkraut) decries these proceedings but is silenced by Caiaphas. Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate for sentencing, but he in turn attempts to pawn Jesus' fate on Harod Antipas. Instead, Antipas forces Pilate to make an example of Jesus by crucifying him. Carrying his cross through the city, Jesus is helped to his feet by Simon of Cyrene (Sidney Poitier) before being nailed to the cross on the hill with no less an iconic cinematic figure than John Wayne (as a Roman Centurion) declaring "Surely this man was the son of God."
The end of the first act leading into the intermission and the finale of the second, where Jesus rises from the dead are both book-ended by choral re-orchestrations a la Alfred Newman of Mendel's Hallelujah chorus. The rest of the score is reverent to a fault, but at times frightfully evocative of Newman's underscoring of another religious epic; The Robe (1953). The Greatest Story Ever Told is hardly as great as its title suggests. It is a film that will unlikely ever be duplicated. Yet, it stands today as more of a final fade out to that elephantine spectacle that was so in vogue in the late 1950s and early '60s and an epitaph to the now defunct studio system from Hollywood's golden age. Rarely does it transcend into the rare echelon where art becomes the catalyst for eternal inspiration.
Fox's Blu-ray offering is, frankly, an abomination. In re-examining their packaging, nowhere on either this disc or its rear cover art does studio marketing advertise this transfer as 1080p though undoubtedly it is. What it is not is 'restored' or 'remastered' - as was previously advertised on several internet sites prior to this disc's release. Instead, this is the same problematic and utterly lackluster image derived from MGM's previously issued DVD incarnations.
The image throughout is riddled with dirt, scratches, severe fading, slight to considerable age related damage and a shimmering of fine details, as well as a smattering of instability inherent in the original print. Fine detail, that ought to be present in a large gauge format like Panavision 70 is wholly absent in this transfer. Flesh tones veer from pasty pink to ruddy orange. The image has also been artificially enhanced, suffering from extreme edge enhancement throughout. Film grain is digitized and harsh looking throughout. Truly, this is one of the worst looking Blu-ray discs to ever come on the market.
Fox has includes a disclaimer immediately before the movie starts, erroneously claiming that they have brought the film to hi-definition using the best possible source materials. This is an outright lie. The superiority of an original Panavision 70 camera negative would never produce such garish amounts of digital grain and other anomalies as are glaringly present herein, particularly during the crucifixion. The image is so unstable during this penultimate sequence that background detail breaks apart.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequate, though it too does exhibit moments of hiss and pop and, on occasion, can sound more strident than most stereo tracks of this or any other vintage. For all of the aforementioned reasons The Greatest Story Ever Told is a complete fail, in my opinion. Extras are direct imports from MGM's previous DVD and include two very brief featurettes, one vintage, the other recorded in the mid-1980s and featuring fascinating, if all too short, snippets of Charlton Heston and Shelley Winters waxing affectionately about George Stevens.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)