Lumbering across the screen at a lavishly produced $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 Jesus Christ. Stevens - whose film-making prowess experienced a seismic shift away from the frothy and intimate comedies/musicals and action/adventure yarns he had helped to make famous until after his experiences during WWII, (helping to liberate concentration camps and documenting the ravages of human suffrage and persecution inflicted by the Nazi high command) - returned to Hollywood with a more sobering perspective about what film-making could offer the masses. Interestingly, his postwar movies rarely became preachy, Stevens never losing sight of his primary objective – to entertain – while exposing some of the darker truths about humanity; classicism (A Place in the Sun, 1951), bigotry (Shane, 1953, and, Giant, 1956), and, the value of a single human life against the threat of extermination (The Diary of Anne Frank 1959). This latter effort would mark nearly a six year hiatus for Stevens, though he was hardly dormant.
In hindsight, The Greatest Story Ever Told ought not to have been a George Stevens’ film as, in nearly every regard, it breaks with the precepts and traditions of Stevens’ own intuitive brand of entertainment. It’s the piety of the tale and Stevens’ inability to cloak it in genuine human emotion that wounds its’ value as movie art. After all, there’s no comedy in the Bible – a very serious text, dealt with by Stevens in a sort of faux religiosity. Even Cecil B. DeMille had his lighter side when regaling us with The Ten Commandments (1956). But Stevens has taken the Bible to heart; moreover, Christ (in the embodiment of the Teutonic, Max Von Sidow) to his bosom, emerging from his cutting room with a sort of static tableau, tricked out in an all-star cast of cameos a la the fervor and showmanship of a Michael Todd. Too bad The Greatest Story Ever Told is not Around the World in 80 Days (1956), or even, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); the star power drawing kilowatts away from Sidow’s reverent portrait of this Son of God, alas, making Jesus more a symbol than a man; even one as divinely driven and inspired.
Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told for its who’s who gallery of the famous (José Ferrer, John Wayne, Donald Pleasance, Van Heflin, Charlton Heston, Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone, et. al) and the marginally so (Victor Buono, Caroll Baker, Shelley Winters, Martin Landau, Dorothy McGuire, Joseph Schildkraut etc.), paraded before the expansive Ultra-Panavision cameras, or set in rigidly posed compositions like waxwork mannequins is less than awe-inspiring; particularly since so few of the easily identifiable are given much to do or say beyond a snippet and sound bite. The screenplay, loosely adapted by Stevens and James Lee Barrett, is based almost entirely on a series of half-hour radio broadcasts derived from the Gospel in 1947; also from a 1949 novelized adaptation of the life and times of Jesus by Fulton Oursler. Part of the allure these Bible-fiction epics hold stems from their presentation value; spread across a concave screen and enveloping all of the senses; the sweep, scope and spectacle of thousands of extras, reaching to touch Jesus’ garment in their almost monochromatic costumes, gathered together in one of the 47 full-size sets (built to dwarf all expectations) has both its perennial fascination and its place in the annals of movie-making.
Alas, no home video presentation has ever been able to compete with the overwhelming resplendencies of a big screen premiere at one of the great movie palaces of their day. And so, movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told must stand alone on the merit of their story-telling; also, their acting, but more on this latter virtue (or vice) in a moment. Occasionally, the Bible-fiction epic on the small screen wields its impact. William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) immediately comes to mind; DeMille’s Ten Commandments and Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953) also, but to a lesser degree, though still effective. The Greatest Story Ever Told is problematic in this regard, precisely because of its ‘religious’ adherence to its subject matter. There’s no room for interpretation it seems; Stevens trying to will the ancient parchment to life with every fiber of his being and disposable trick in his creative repertoire. Max Von Sidow is not merely attempting a performance, but rather determined to ‘be’ Jesus Christ imprimatur. It doesn’t necessarily equate to a great performance, however, and, in retrospect, a good part of the problem with the film is Sidow’s stoic and sad-eyed savior who is never without the weight of the world upon his shoulders. He administers faith-teaching principles and miracles alike of every shape and size with a sort of drab piety; a queer and unsettling disdain for basic human pleasures – or even satisfactions. These are not to be discovered and/or celebrated in the divine, God preferring the servants of faith to be sad, long-suffering, and unable to look up into the sun with a smile.
Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to embrace any religion in this fashion – noted heathen, that I am. After all, if God did not wanted man to seek and discover his joys – as well as the cares – then why, in heaven and on earth, would He have given mankind the opportunity to experience both? Free will? The flipside, of course, is perhaps pleasures themselves are the devil’s tool, meant to entice and distract humanity from discovering its exalted finality in the kingdom of heaven. I shudder to think where that puts me in line for Holy Communion. Either way, there’s not much happiness to be found in The Greatest Story Ever Told, not even in the decadent courts of King Herod Antipas or in the liberating baptismal ceremonies conducted by the venerable John (Charlton Heston). It’s this persistently dreary quality, inflicted on the audience by Stevens’ methodical (some might argue, ‘leaden’) pacing wears on our patience and the movie’s entertainment value almost from the start; the more realistic surroundings captured in William J. Creber, Richard Day and David S. Hall’s art direction; Fred M. MacLean, Ray Moyer and Norman Rockett set decoration, and Marjorie Best and Vittorio Nino Novarese’s costume design, at odds with the anticipated, but denied herein, paganisms extoled by DeMille, Wyler and Mervyn LeRoy’s colorfully attired and garishly opulent Bible-fiction epics.
Interestingly, both Hollywood’s self-governing Code of Ethics and the Catholic League of Decency never had a problem with this aforementioned decadence; presumably because all the B.C. cavorting in diaphanous gowns and loose-fitting togas, bathing in asses’ milk or getting stinking sour on large casks of flowing wine, was to be sacrificed for life-altering precepts of fear-mongering devoutness once its slovenly inhabitance were terrorized by a series of ‘miracles’ – burning bushes and hail, devouring locusts and mist-like pestilences, creeping in the dead of night to claim their first born, etc. et al; thus forcing humanity into a discovery of Christ in their own hearts. God threatens. Man bows – and, on occasion, breaks. One of the most sublime moments in The Greatest Story Ever Told is, in fact, Christ, cast into the wilderness, discovering The Dark Hermit (a.k.a. Satan) perched atop a cliff top retreat, his eyes glimmering with an ominous reflective fire as he promises Jesus every worldly luxury of the human world in exchange for his renunciation of God. The sublimity of the moment is entirely owed actor, Donald Pleasance as the aforementioned dark lord; a juicy moment, expertly scripted, but even more delicately played for its deliciously subversive sin; Pleasance’s mellifluous and almost child-like voice, utterly fascinating and thoroughly bone-chilling besides. It may be sacrilege to suggest Satan is a better actor than Jesus. Then again, maybe not. But in this case, Pleasance trumps the tormented Sidow’s overwrought expressions of pang, even if Jesus ultimately does resist the devil’s invitation to partake and surrender his mortal soul.
Exploiting the wilds of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah for the Holy Land, The Greatest Story Ever Told has a queerly disquieting timelessness about it. Arguably, the movie has not dated. The initial 70mm engagement, running a whopping 225 min. was likely a real fanny-twitching experience; the studio electing to cut The Greatest Story Ever Told down to 199 min. of stiffly stylized melodrama. If nothing else, Stevens’ has made the first serious attempt to recreate a living testament to Christ; but perhaps, with just a tad too much solemnity factored into the mix to make his movie click as it should. Loyal Griggs and William C. Mellor's cinematography extols the vastness of its subject matter with meticulous detail. But there is really nothing about the visuals – as vast in their sprawling desolation as one might hope – that can salvage the dragging pace of this story. Worse, Stevens (a director I greatly admire) seems incapable of generating any intimacy between Christ and his flock between the edges of this vast Ultra 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 generally play, have been forgotten, discarded or never even considered. And Max Von Sidow’s Christ is an ill-at-ease espousing philosopher – nee soothsayer – imparting the gospel as though he were giving a Fulbright lecture at Brigham Young University. Curiously, at times, his continence takes on the flavor of Alec Guinness’ Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), though without Guinness’ flashes of brilliance to carry it off. This is not to suggest Sidow is not a fine actor, as he’s proven elsewhere on celluloid many times. But herein, he just seems severely out of his depth.
As previously mentioned, The Greatest Story Ever Told has some truly epic star power in its canon, the cameos coming fast and furiously at the camera, though not always achieving a level of craftsmanship befitting the stature of these thespians we’ve come to admire from formidable work committed elsewhere. Charlton Heston, as example, is grotesquely under-employed as John the Baptist. Aside: to cast Heston as anything less than the lead in ANY Bible-fiction movie seems more the epitome of a badly conceived in-joke than polite homage. Heston is too big for a cameo. Ditto for John Wayne’s Roman centurion, barely glimpsed in a truly cringe-worthy moment after Sidow’s Christ has expired on the cross, looking strangely effete in his breastplate and helmet as he stammers, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” …and the south shall rise again – maybe! It’s a painful episode, one almost prone to a forced ‘I can’t believe they did that’ chuckle at what ought to be a most reverential moment, but with Wayne, even more ridiculously out of context. I kept expecting Telly Savalas’ Pontius Pilate, played with an embarrassingly contemporary slant, to suddenly turn to the camera and say, “Who loves yah, baby?” even though his stint as TV’s Kojak (1973-78) was still a good eight years into the future of his acting career. Ed Wyn's Old Aram often appears as though he could burst into song or, at least, a befuddled comedy sketch about the plagues as he desperately emotes forced tears from his prosthetic contact lens, meant to suggest blindness. And was it just me, or did anyone else suspect Pat Boone’s Angel at the Tomb might suddenly whip out a celestial guitar for a rousing Bible-camp rockabilly rendition of Kumbaya?
The final death knell for the movie remains George Stevens’ decision to excise a good deal of Alfred Newman’s original score, substituting portions of Handel’s Messiah and even certain cues from Newman’s own score for The Robe in its stead; pretty much bastardizing the dramatic arc of Newman’s orchestral plans for The Greatest Story Ever Told. In an era before instant recall on home video made it possible to go back and re-re-review movies in perpetuity and in still frame (for those who find this sort of moronic critiquing noteworthy), Stevens’ substitutions likely went unnoticed by the masses, and possibly even over the heads of most critics, who may or may not have seen The Robe or were able to recall it in detail. No less than six maestros became involved in reconstituting Newman’s arrangements, tweaking and making contributions of their own along the way, attesting – at least, at some level – to the ole adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth.’ Nevertheless, and apart from Newman’s illustrious pedigree, the roster assembled to rework the score included some of Hollywood’s finest arrangers/composers: Ken Darby, Jack Hayes, Leo Shuken, Hugo Friedhofer and Fred Steiner.
We begin in a manger with the ‘immaculate conception’ and Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and Joseph (Robert Loggia). King Herod (Claude Rains) fools the Three Wise Men into alerting him as per 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 young male children and rid himself of the prophecy a King of Kings has come to free all men from his bondage. The bloody slaughter proves a hollow victory. For as soon as he is told by the Captain of his Guard his commands have been carried out, Herod dies on his throne. His son, Herod Antipas (José 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 proving lethal to his already limited authority, but who also point the finger at John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) as a possible threat from afar. John is brought before Antipas and beheaded. From here, the film fast tracks into the life of the adult Jesus (Max Von Sidow), presumably because the gospel does not mark much in the way of what occurred between Christ's birth and his debut into manhood. Having conquered temptation in the form of The Dark Hermit (a.k.a. Satan), 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 all known bounds of human suffrage and/or healing are acts 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 his loyal ministers and together they hold a secret trial to find Jesus guilty of these crimes. One minister, Nicodemus (Joseph Schildkraut) decries the proceedings. He is quickly silenced by Caiaphas. Jesus is captured and taken to Pontius Pilate for sentencing. Alas, Pilate is stricken by a silent bout of contrition and seeks to pawn Jesus’ fate on Herod Antipas. Instead, Antipas forces Pilate to make an example of Jesus by crucifixion. Carrying his own gallows through the city, Jesus is helped to his feet by Simon of Cyrene (Sidney Poitier) before being nailed to his cross on the hill with no less an iconic figure than John Wayne (as a Roman Centurion) declaring "Surely this man was the son of God."
Arguably, The Greatest Story Ever Told is in trouble from the beginning, as most going into the theater already know too well what will come of its story-telling: the greatest of all ‘downers’ in human history. Tomes do not come much weightier than the crucifixion. And so Stevens elects, arguably with minimal success, to ‘march onward Christian soldier’ with the resurrection and the light, and a reprise of Handel’s famed Hallelujah Chorus; first heard after Lazarus’ awakening from the dead just prior to the movie’s intermission. It’s a problematic finale at best, tacked on to arbitrarily diffuse this ecclesiastical pogrom and satisfy the faithfully devout and superficially agnostic in tandem.
Some years after his father’s death, George Stevens Jr. expressed a fervent hope this elephantine screen spectacle (Stevens Sr.’s one and only foray into antiquity) would be revealed as a truly monumental work of art dedicated to the Christian principle. Alas, with each passing year this seems ever less likely a prospect; the movie’s ultra-conservative tone seemingly even more right of center these days and failing to gain even a modicum of velocity for its own resurrection, except amongst diehard fans. The movie’s shining moment ought to have come in 1959; the year Stevens originally began brainstorming this epic. He missed the boat by six years – a lifetime where movie trends are concerned. By the mid-60’s, the Bible-fiction epic had already run its course. If not for The Greatest Story Ever Told it might have lumbered along for a few more years thereafter. But the colossal thud at the box office left the studios in a wince -worthy funk about investing in any more like-minded toga parties where the lead actor dies at the end. The Bible is, by nature, episodic; a series of parables by which one may choose to set his/her moral compass. This makes it particularly well-suited for the Sunday liturgy, but rather awkwardly structured for the conventions of a big, bloated Hollywood blockbuster. Ironically, the Bible – with its shifting narratives – seems more apposite for TV and its ‘don’t touch that dial/tune in next week’ mentality, as the mini-series, The Bible (2013) has proven. At three hours, Stevens’ movie is either too much, or, decidedly, not enough of, a good thing. The critics are still trying to determine which. One thing is for certain, Stevens’ tableaux- governed technique could not be more antithetical to the modern-day vogue in picture-making if it tried. Even in 1965, it lagged behind the more progressive curve in cinema style.
MGM Home Entertainment once claimed to have spent $500,000 on a restoration of The Greatest Story Ever Told; utilizing original surviving elements to create a brand new 65mm interpositive. If this is the case, it was money ill spent. For none of the enduring home video releases (not on VHS, DVD or now, twice on Blu-ray via MGM/Fox) have yielded anything greater than a woefully subpar visual presentation. Granted, MGM’s restoration efforts were conceived in an era when photochemical cleanup preceded the digital technologies we now readily take for granted. But this does not excuse either MGM or Fox from avoiding their utilization ever since! The Greatest Story Ever Told was photographed in Ultra-Panavision; the widest, sharpest and most detail-orientated of the 70mm formats. So, what’s here ought to look mind-bogglingly spectacular. Instead, everything looks as though it were fed through a meat grinder. Prepare to be doubly disappointed, as this is Fox’s first reissue of this Frisbee of a disc first made available in 2008, but cribbing from the exact same flawed and highly digitized elements, likely dating all the way back to the mid-1990’s. Yuck! And wrong on so many levels…where to begin?
Well, it’s in 2.75:1 aspect ratio, approximating the original Panavision release. I suppose that’s something. Colors are unimpressively muddy and, on occasion, looking careworn and slightly faded. Flesh is either severely pink or ruddy orange. Age-related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally distracting. On Panavision, film grain ought to have registered as finely sifted granules of sand. Instead, the entire image suffers from a pocked look with considerable tiling in background details; clumpy video-based noise scattered throughout and untoward edge enhancement indiscriminately applied whenever someone at MGM/Fox felt it was warranted. Bottom line: this is an ugly visual presentation – period and virtually identical to the disc Fox gave us in 2008 with different cover art and packaging. Frankly, it’s an abomination, compounded with a light smattering of instability, causing image wobble from side to side. Video stabilization…hello?!?
I must admit, given the studio’s track record for remastering I’m disgusted but not terribly surprised. Evidently Fox Home Video knows it’s lobbing lemons into the marketplace because they have included a disclaimer before the movie starts, erroneously claiming they have brought this film to hi-definition using the best possible source materials. Wrong! They have given us a quick and cheap reissue designed to capitalize on the Easter holiday and, owing to the overall evisceration of their previous disc, have elected to sidestep the issue of performing the necessary remastering work to flimflam the public with different cover art for the same damn travesty, hoping we’ll all double dip! Badly done! Very badly done and for shame!
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequate, though just that; exhibiting moments of hiss and sounding very strident in spots; much more than any vintage stereo ought. For all of the aforementioned reasons The Greatest Story Ever Told is a complete fail. 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 from Charlton Heston and Shelley Winters waxing affectionately about George Stevens.
Interestingly, Amazon.com has pulled this reissue from its order lineup; much in the same way Paramount’s reissue of My Fair Lady now seems to be lingering somewhere in purgatory from whence one can only hope it will someday resurface. Doubly interesting for The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s still available from Amazon.ca. This is how yours truly acquired his disc for this sad, very sad review. Clearly, Fox hasn’t been chagrined enough to stop its release to lesser markets like…you know… Canada, where I suspect they continue to dump rejected West Side Story discs in abundance from their first flawed attempt at issuing that classic musical to Blu-ray. It may appear as though I am ganging up on Fox. If pointing out a company’s extremely laissez faire attitude toward preserving their catalog in hi-def is ‘ganging up’ then I suppose I am guilty as charged. But honestly, people: restoring the cultural heritage of motion pictures is not open for discussion.
With 80% of Hollywood’s history already in a perilous state of disrepair or lost to us for all time, and without any concerted push being made at present to correct such oversights, what is at stake here is the loss of history as well as art. If we were speaking of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, The Last Supper or Michelangelo’s famed statue of David, no one would say, “Hey, let it fade and fall to pieces. Let the birds poop on the marble and give the kiddies some Crayolas to update the famous lady’s smile with some lipstick.” No, the art world would never stand for it. There would be a march and a pep rally and the writing of checks en masse to salvage, preserve and restore these works of art. Ironically, cinema art never gets this same consideration and celluloid continues to molder, unloved and unheard of, hidden in vaults or secreted away in the hands of private collectors who cannot bear to part with their memories, but sincerely lack in the resources to give us back the glories of golden Hollywood. Not all that came from these dream factories was golden, folks. But so much is, and hitherto the point, is in desperate need of a unified conservation effort. Do it now, or there will come a day not so very far off when the opportunity to contribute will no longer be an option. And Fox, get right with the Lord and collectors. You have the power, the money and the copyright to do so. It’s high time that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)