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 notoriously 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 theaters 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 slowly, 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 the best-looking scenes ever put on the silver screen. The color cinematography by Oscar-winners Loyal Griggs (Shane) and William C. Mellor (A Place in the Sun) is awesome! The sets, costumes and visual effects are excellent too. I also loved Alfred Newman’s (How the West Was Won) music score.

The flaws are too glaring to ignore, though. 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. Endless 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 Roman soldier!!!). And Max Von Sydow’s (The Exorcist) Jesus looks… odd, very odd — the excessive make-up makes him look like a 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 David Lean to shoot the Nativity scene, but Lean chose the King Herod — played by Claude Rains, Notorious  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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