Director’s Spotlight: George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)


Lavish, meticulous retelling of the life of Jesus Christ — from birth to crucifixion to resurrection.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The Greatest Story Ever Told was a notorious critical and financial failure. Unfortunately for director George Stevens (Shane and Giant), he took so long preparing and shooting the film — nearly five years — that by the time the movie hit theatres this kind of thing was considered passé. The New Wave had arrived and with it the end of the Hollywood Biblical extravaganza.

Although this is not my favorite biblical epic by a long shot, I rather enjoyed it. I agree with its detractors though — it’s a bit too meticulous for its own good. It moves very slow, and it has a self-importance attitude that rubbed me the wrong way. But, I can’t complain about the technical aspects of the movie. The Greatest Story Ever Told contains some of most beautiful footage ever put on the silver screen. The sets, costumes and matte work are excellent. I also loved Alfred Newman’s music score.

Sadly, the flaws become too glaring to ignore. The second half is not as good as the first — after the intermission, the movie inexplicably begins to lose steam. The crucifixion scenes are strangely anti-climatic. The endless cameos by famous actors are a problem too. At first, they are handled okay, but after a while, they become really ridiculous (e.g. John Wayne, Angela Lansbury). And Max Von Sydow’s (The Exorcist) Jesus looks … odd, very odd.

The troubled production had many ups and downs. After Stevens fell behind schedule, the money people forced him to get help. The director asked David Lean to shoot the Nativity scene, but Lean chose the King Herod (Claude Rains, Casablanca) sequences instead. Lean took no money and did the whole thing under two weeks. Jean Negulesco (Johnny Belinda) ended up directing the Nativity scene. I kept looking for any Lean touches, but I couldn’t find any. I have to praise Lean for simply doing a good job for a friend and resisting the temptation of calling attention to himself — you can’t tell that a different director worked on those sequences. The same goes for Negulesco.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Greatest Story Ever Told is long and flawed, but the powerful images kept me interested yet I think a film like Nicholas Ray’s Kings of Kings did a much better job exploring the life of Jesus. Still, it doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. Color, 225 minutes, Not Rated.


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