“Simply to do the story of Jesus” with “no interruption for theatrical embroideries. We want to get to the heart of the matter.” (George Stevens)
After the success of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, Fox), producer and director George Stevens cast about for his next project and finally decided that he would dedicate himself to completing a film detailing the life of Jesus Christ — one done with dignity and which would stand the test of time. The film, entitled The Greatest Story Ever Told and released through United Artists, would consume the next six years of his life. Stevens poured himself completely into the project, which involved an onerous nine-month shoot that had originally been planned for three months. Upon completion, however, the film was met with mixed reaction partly due to its extreme length and somewhat ponderous nature.
MGM has now released The Greatest Story Ever Told on DVD in a two-disc special edition that it is trumpeting as the restored roadshow version.
This is the story of the life of Jesus Christ, with the vast majority of the time devoted to his adult years. All the most famous episodes in Christ’s life are lovingly recreated including His birth, the meeting with John the Baptist, the gathering of the disciples, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracles including the feeding of the multitude and raising of Lazarus from the dead, the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, Judas’ betrayal of Christ, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.
Creating The Greatest Story Ever Told was a monumental task. Stevens immersed himself in the Scriptures and a truly staggering amount of material was assembled from which the final script was developed. Carl Sandburg was even engaged as a creative consultant to the process. Stevens traveled to the Holy Land scouting locations, but he soon realized that almost 2,000 years of civilization had affected the regions of Christ’s life too greatly. As a result, he turned to the American southwest for the sorts of pristine locale that he felt necessary. Included among the chosen locations were Utah’s Moab and Glen Canyon, Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, and California’s Death Valley. Extensive sets (47 in total) were also constructed, both on location and on the Culver City backlot. The total location shooting spread over some nine months, much of it a stressful time as shooting started late and the weather was uncooperative (unexpected snowfalls had to be cleared from the terrain). Stevens’ wish to shoot the John the Baptist sequence in the Glen Canyon area was also under pressure, for the area was soon scheduled to become Lake Powell with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam.
There is much to praise in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Worthy of particular note, for example, is the cinematography. Although the locations are spectacular in themselves, Stevens’ framing of them is magnificent. He timed much of his shooting to gain maximum impact from sunrises or sunsets. Contrasting textures and colours are frequently employed with the placement of manmade objects in the landscape. Careful attention to lighting is evident throughout. The result is almost like an art show, so beautiful do some of the set-pieces look. Particularly memorable are the Last Supper and earlier, the image of hundreds of people crucified all along a road that Joseph and Mary are traveling.
In casting the film, Stevens made a most judicious choice in selecting Max von Sydow to play Jesus. He wanted an actor not well known to the public and von Sydow, whose work was mainly in Sweden to that point, fit the bill. The mystery of how von Sydow would look as Jesus was further heightened by Stevens’ refusal to allow photographs to be taken of von Sydow on the set. With the film’s release, it was soon evident that von Sydow was a triumph as Jesus. He brought both strength of will and dignity to the role as well as convincingly conveying the innate goodness and intelligence necessary.
Stevens’ other decision, to pepper the film with cameos by a large number of Hollywood stars, was somewhat less successful. On viewing the completed film, many raised the issue that the familiar faces in small roles were distracting. The nature of Stevens’ response was that he felt he had made the definitive version of Jesus’ life and in 40 years or more, when watching the film, no one would know those stars and it wouldn’t matter. Well, it’s nearly 40 years later; we still know the stars; and in a few cases it does matter.
One case that’s not a concern is Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. Heston is one of the best things in the film, for his sequences are filled with passion that make them stand out from the passivity of many of the others. David McCallum has the right look for a Judas Iscariot and Sidney Poitier conveys resolve as Simon of Cyrene. Claude Rains, as always, is good as the old King Herod, as is Jose Ferrer as the younger Herod. Donald Pleasance’s take on Satan is quite effective. On the other hand, Telly Savalas does an early Kojak as Pontius Pilate; Van Heflin is too wide-eyed as Bar Amand; and John Wayne’s one line as the centurion at the crucifixion is jarring, even when you know it’s coming.
MGM’s DVD presents The Greatest Story Ever Told in anamorphic widescreen preserving the Ultra Panavision original aspect ratio of 2.75:1 and utilizing 32 scene selections. There is an intermission before chapter 22, although the packaging doesn’t tell you that. The film is on one side of a DVD-9 disc. On the whole, the image is quite good and much of Stevens’ cinematography is well captured. Colours are vibrant. In some long shots, of which there are many in this film, there is an apparent loss of clarity in the figures of people that are so small compared to the vastness around them. Edge enhancement is also noticeable from time to time, but is not a distraction on the whole. Stevens has chosen to employ reduced lighting with the purposeful use of deep shadows from time to time and sometimes it is difficult to be sure if the image is accurately portraying these scenes or if it has rendered them a little too darkly. The sequence on the mountain between Jesus and Satan is one example of this.
The original 6-track stereo has been used for the audio. This generally provides a pleasing ambience with Alfred Newman’s haunting if subdued score nicely presented. There are few significant low frequency effects. Dialogue is clear and distortion free. The French sound track is similarly presented. An English stereo surround mix is also included. Subtitling is in French and Spanish only.
On a second DVD-5 disc, MGM has included a nice selection of features. The main one is a “new” making-of documentary called “He Walks in Beauty.” Unfortunately much of it is not new, but just repeats material available on a previously-made featurette (also included on the disc) and “A Filmmaker’s Journey” — George Stevens Jr.’s excellent film biography of his father’s career. Then too “He Walks in Beauty” seems as much a general paean to George Stevens as it is a making-of documentary. Nonetheless, it is an interesting piece worth one’s time if you haven’t seen the original material it’s taken from. MGM also includes an extensive photo gallery (over 100 shots), an alternate take of the “Via Dolorosa” sequence, a few costume sketches, the original theatrical trailer, and production notes on the four-page disc insert.
Despite the beauty and earnestness of the film, one cannot deny that it’s long. And the methodical nature in which the story is presented can make it seem even longer. I believe it will very much depend on your mood at the time, whether you find it excessively so. Certainly length was a major criticism originally, given the reverential tone of the film. Some critics even took to calling it “The Longest Story Ever Told.” Given that, despite MGM’s trumpeting that this is the restored roadshow version, we still seem to be missing an hour of the original cut of 4 hours and 20 minutes. About this, there’s absolutely no mention by MGM. Of course, the impact of an additional hour is unknown. Depending on where the missing material fits into the current 199 minute cut, it could make a long film just seem even longer, or it could alter the pacing so that the film moves more swiftly than it currently seems to.
Stevens’ emphasis on the landscapes in this film results in a high percentage of long shots that again may be annoying to some. More of concern to me was the fact that he seems to have decided to start his long shots with the opening credits. They’re so small (and use a sort of gothic script) that you virtually need a magnifying glass to read them, even on the 51″ RPTV I used for viewing the film. Obviously, they would have been somewhat more legible viewed in the theatre, but I still think it’s a disservice to the talent on and off the screen to force us to work so hard to see their names.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is somewhat of a mixed bag. The cinematography and several of the key players such as von Sydow and Heston are positives. Balanced this are a preponderance of long shots and some cameos that are more distracting than anything else. This is a long film that requires patience, but if you can get into its spirit, it is mesmerizing. If not, it can be a real chore to sit through. MGM has on the whole done pretty well by the film. The DVD transfer is not up there with the best, but certainly portions of it are stunning. Unanswered is the issue of the missing hour from the original release and what its impact might be.
You may have to give The Greatest Story Ever Told an hour or so, but if you can stick with it that long, I think you’ll be hooked.