The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)


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

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Truly, this man was the son of God.”

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

While this is not my favorite biblical epic by a long shot (it isn’t half as fun as Cecil B. DeMille’s religious extravaganzas Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments), I rather enjoyed it. I agree with its detractors, though — The Greatest Story Ever Told is a little too meticulous and solemn for its own good. The film moves very slowly, and it has a self-importance attitude that rubbed me the wrong way.

That said, I can’t complain about the movie’s technical aspects. The Greatest Story Ever Told contains some of the most beautiful images ever put on the screen. The color cinematography by Oscar-winners cameramen Loyal Griggs (White Christmas) and William C. Mellor (The Diary of Anne Frank) is awesome! The sets, costumes and visual effects are excellent too. I also loved Alfred Newman’s (Airport) music score.

The flaws are too glaring to ignore. The crucifixion scenes are strangely anti-climatic. The endless parade of cameos by famous actors are a problem too. At first, they are handled okay, but after a while they become ridiculous (e.g., John Wayne as a Roman soldier!). And Swedish actor Max Von Sydow’s (The Exorcist) Jesus looks… odd — the excessive make-up makes him look like a Madame Tussauds wax figure.

The Greatest Story Ever Told had a long and troubled production history. After director Stevens fell behind schedule, studio executives forced him to get help. Stevens asked close friend and fellow filmmaker Sir David Lean to shoot the Nativity scene, but Lean chose the King Herod — played by Claude Rains, Casablanca  sequences instead (Jean Negulesco, Johnny Belinda, ended up directing the Nativity scene).

Lean took no money and did the whole thing in less than two weeks. 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 say that a different director worked on those sequences. The same goes for Negulesco (he also directed the sequences that take place in the Jerusalem streets).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Greatest Story Ever Told is long and flawed, but the powerful images kept me interested, yet I think Nicholas Ray’s Jesus epic Kings of Kings did a much better job exploring the life of the iconic Christian leader. The film couldn’t recoup its high production costs and practically killed George Stevens’s movie career. Still, it doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. Color, 225 minutes, Not Rated.


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