THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD was a labor of love for director George Stevens, ordained by fate to be unrequited—at least until, like its timeless martyr, enough Caesar’s have come and gone for its passion play to be reexamined and appreciated, chapter & verse.
You kind of set yourself up for scrutiny with that grandiose title. The life & times, works & death of Jesus Christ may indeed claim fame as the tale that has moved more people—in one direction or another—than any other ever spun (followers of Buddha or Muhammad may differ, lighting candles or fuses), but Stevens based his screenplay, co-written by James Lee Barrett, off a 1949 book written by Fulton Oursler. Tooled on & toiled over by Stevens since 1958, when released in 1965 critics crucified it and its exorbitant cost was not recovered; the director’s heartfelt opus entered and dismissed in movie history as a good-looking but tired (and tiresome) dog. So, what’s the story? Where’s the ‘greatest’ part come in?
First, the good, which is considerable. Stem to stern, it does look like a million bucks—or rather, $20,000,000, the lavishly indulged budget making it the 2nd-costliest film yet released (still way behind Cleopatra). The beautifully composed and lit cinematography from Loyal Griggs and William C. Mellor, the strikingly scenic (if wholly inaccurate) locations, Alfred Newman’s lovely, mournful scoring— all deserve praise. There are a number of telling sequences and effective individual moments (Judas’ silent exit is inspired), and numerous members of the swarming cast do notably fine work.
In the personality-consuming central role, Max von Sydow was introduced to English-language films. Unless you insist on venting about his northern European looks, it’s hard to fault von Sydow’s playing—he’s one of the World’s Greatest Acting Treasures. In his early 30s during the 18-month shoot, he “noticed that some of my close friends began treating me with reverence. Playing the role of Christ was like being in a prison. It was the hardest part I’ve ever had to play in my life. I couldn’t smoke or drink in public. I couldn’t. The most difficult part of playing Christ was that I had to keep up the image around the clock.” (he followed up this grave and gentle rabbi with another charismatic religious figure, the less-forgiving Bible-thumper ‘Abner Hale’ in Hawaii). Enter Max, exit Claude, as the plum role of the degenerate Herod was the 61st film and swan song for another great, the irreplaceable Claude Rains.
Jose Ferrer is likewise quite good as Herod’s spawn, Antipas. Biting into their scenes with relish are Donald Pleasence (personifying Satan as the unsettling ‘Dark Hermit’), Telly Savalas (a pragmatic, fed-up Pontius Pilate) and Martin Landau (feverishly scheming Caiaphas). What would an Epic be without Charlton Heston? This one would be a lot duller. His wild & woolly portrait of John the Baptist is the most vigorous acting in the movie—he wakes you up with his bellows of “Repent!” and lusty Jordan-dunking of extras.
Okay, good and good. Whither the blowback? By the time TGSET was released, in the reception-torpid chill of February, 1965, there had already been a big-as-Christ spectacle, the very good 1961 King of Kings, and a deluge of huge-scale films cresting with the expenses and losses soaked by Mutiny On The Bounty, Cleopatra and The Fall Of The Roman Empire. Meanwhile, a new breed of catty, self-promoting critics were a pox on the land, eager to loose career-deflating barbs at Hollywood old-timers who were missing some New Wave beats. Ford, Capra, Huston and other giants were all being taken to the woodshed by the asp-bites of Crist, Kael and Simon, and a uber-costly, ploddingly reverent, star-studded Sunday school lesson was asking for a crown of thorns.
How long does it take to read the New Testament? Approximately the same time it would take to sit through Stevens originally released running time of 260 minutes (yes, that’s four hours, twenty minutes–and with only a few jostles passing as ‘action’). The production design was not merely detailed, it had been scourged in the pacing, which was s-l-o-w, and Stevens misjudged by taking a tack that had worked with other super-sized entertainments: the all-star cast. Around The World In 80 Days, The Longest Day, How The West Was Won and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World benefited from mass-cast-appeal, in part because they all moved dynamically and were geared for excitement, thrills or laughter. Strolling and sermonizing for four hours and then seeing a soft-spoken savior executed is a bit more sombre than star-spotting–“hey, is that Sal Mineo as…no wait, there’s Pat Boone as…” They’re both here, along with Ed Wynn, Van Heflin, Dorothy McGuire (get me a Mom! get me THE Mom), Carroll Baker, Richard Conte, Victor Buono, Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Loggia, Janet Margolin. Going full-pew at the finish, Stevens piled on with mere seconds worth of Shelley Winters (a time to pray if there ever was one), Sidney Poitier (show liberal credentials, safely) and finally—John Wayne—in the most famous bit, with its in-erasable tag-line/gagline “Truly, this man was the son of God.” *
The sentence was death by a thousand cuts (or millions, at the cash registers), starting by trims down to 238 minutes, then a remove-the-salad & dessert version of 137 minutes. The current DVD and Blu-Ray release issue runs 199 minutes; according to George Stevens Jr., this was the cut his father was most satisfied with. It’s enough to honor Stevens deliberate tableaux and sincere emotional intent without the extra 61 bludgeoning you into atheism.
The disciples: David McCallum, Michael Anderson Jr., Roddy McDowall, Gary Raymond, John Considine, Jamie Farr, David Hedison, Tom Reese, David Sheiner, Burt Brinckerhoff and…Robert Blake (with apostles like this, you don’t need arrogant Romans).
Filmed in Arizona, California (Death Valley), Nevada and Utah (Canyonlands & Arches National Parks). Stevens, on the half-praised/half-derided choice of his locations: “I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American Southwest. I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area and it can be done better here.” Oscar nominated for Cinematography, Music Score, Art Direction, Costume Design and Visual Effects. The grosses were substantial, taking spot #11 for the year, but the reaping of $15,473,000 came to naught against the enormous tab.
Milling in the cast scroll: Ina Balin, Joseph Schildkraut, Paul Stewart, Rodolfo Acosta, Michael Ansara, John Abbott, Russell Johnson, Frank De Kova, John Lupton, Frank Silvera, Harold J. Stone, Abraham Sofaer, Richard Bakalyan, Jay C. Flippen.
* We’ll start the Sermon on the Asterisk Mound with defending The Duke. Aside from providing a funny but fictitious, endlessly repeated anecdote (cited to kingdom come elsewhere), there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Wayne’s presence or his delivery of the line. As a favor to Stevens, he signed on for the cameo in 1960. The director took a long view: he knew that long after he, Big John and the culture-lords at The New Yorker were dust, future audiences would not bring personality baggage into the picture. He wanted a Centurion—and he went with someone who could project authority. Short-term: bad idea, George. Jesus has just expired and you don’t want some kid in the audience, goosed out of his nap, to yell, “hey, it’s Davy Crockett in a skirt!”
As for timing, along with King of Kings stealing home plate, and the other jostling colossi mentioned above, in the wake of the mighty Ben-Hur the Biblicycle had been pedaled (peddled, if you are a philistine) by Solomon And Sheba, Barabbas, The Story Of Ruth, Sodom And Gomorrah, The Big Fisherman and Esther And The King. It wasn’t just that the painstaking producer-director was inadvertently late out of the manger, he shot himself in the sandal by endless retakes and changes of approach. Stepping in to help the swamped Stevens with directing, taking no credit, were David Lean (the great stuff with Rains/Herod) and Jean Negulesco. Freak snow storms blanketed Arizona. Cameraman William Mellor died of a heart attack and was replaced by Loyal Griggs (Griggs had done the wonderful job on Shane for Stevens; he managed to semi-compete with himself at the Oscars for 1965 when he had this nomination as well as one for his fine black & white work on In Harm’s Way). Carrying Method Acting a roll too far, Joanna Dunham, the 27-year old English actress playing Mary Magdalene, got pregnant and eventually had to filmed from the chest up. The kind of publicity headline you might not want: “Mary Magdalene knocked up in a blizzard near Jerusalem, Utah.” Stevens seemed to roll with it, telling Variety: “Well, that Mary Magdalene always was a troublemaker.” Labor pains yielded that a staggering 6,000,000 feet of Ultra Panavision 70mm film was shot—1136 miles, enough to literally girdle the Moon. A year and a half of editing delayed release long enough for backlash to gather form and force (picture the pinchy-sour faces on an array of joy-constipated reviewers). In a fast-paced, pop-happy year splashed by Thunderball and What’s New, Pussycat? , the distant mirage of Galilee seemed dried up. It’s certainly a worthwhile movie but along with popcorn, you might want a thermos of coffee.