The Greatest Story Ever Told
out of ****
Greatest Story Ever Told has a very honest title. Unfortunately,
it's the only honest thing about the movie. Indeed, the life of
Christ could be the greatest, most controversial, and most historically
significant story every told in the history of mankind. I also
have no doubt that had the life of Christ been told in the gospels
in the same manner that it is told here, Jesus would have been
just another obscure prophet buried deep within the history books.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a film from the DeMille
school of Hollywood, only it doesn't have a clue how to successfully
employ the epic with the DeMille's touch. The movie is all about
spectacle. It is obsessed with every camera angle looking big-budgeted.
It parades its all-star cast around to the point that it might
as well shine their names above them once they enter into the
scene. This is not the story of Christ. This is the story of Hollywood's
attempt to exploit the gospels for the sake of making money and
Greatest Story Ever Told claims to be the definite version
of Christ, and this seems to be the general consensus among most
film historians, who are quick to group it with The Ten Commandments
and Ben-Hur as another all-star Biblical spectacle. In
actuality, it is one of three of Hollywood's attempts to turn
the story of Christ into a big-budgeted, biblical epic. The first
was the 1927, Cecil B. DeMille-directed King of Kings,
unseen by me, and the second was its subsequent 1961 remake of
the same name. That film was certainly silly, but it was at least
sincere. Greatest Story's commercial motivations are
so apparent that they are the only elements that leave any impact
all of the basics of Christ's life are here. We have the birth,
the baptism by John the Baptist (played by Charlton Heston, as
if the character was written well enough that it matters), the
teachings, the miracles, the controversy, the trial, the death,
and the resurrection. The film takes its time to establish the
characters and key events in Christ's life, but not because it
is interested in telling a compelling story in a fresh, thorough
manner. Rather, Greatest Story takes forever because
it is obsessed with making elements of the epic--the sets, the
costumes, the extreme shots, and the musical score--as professional
the raising of Lazarus (and yes, I realized that I used this scene
as an example in my review for Jesus
of Nazareth, but because it is considered Jesus' most
important miracle, it is important to note different filmmakers'
approaches to this moment). Jesus walks off of screen towards
Lazarus' tomb, and instead of watching the miracle, we are shown
the reactions to the people standing around. Suddenly, choral
music begins to loudly play, and we are given long, extensive
shots of disciples and followers of Christ running all over town,
shouting that Jesus is the messiah because of the miracle that
he just performed. This montage of disciples running and screaming
while the music swells drags on for several minutes, and because
we have yet to see the raising of Lazarus ourselves, we can't
remember what these people are yelling about, or why the music
is so loud. The movie is so focused on the “Drama”
of the payoff that it forgets to include the miracle! The whole
film proceeds this way, from the birth to the resurrection. Such
emphasis is placed on how the movie looks that the filmmakers
forget to tell the story.
a real pity, because Max von Sydow was the perfect choice to play
Jesus. The Greatest Story Ever Told was his first English-speaking
film, and he got the part hot off the tails of his Swedish films
under director Ingmar Bergman. Those films included classics such
as The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, where
von Sydow demonstrated the type of authority and dignity that
would have made a perfect Son of God. Von Sydow remains one of
the greatest actors to grace the screen, but it is impossible
to tell in Greatest Story how von Sydow would have played
Christ. He is simply not allowed to act and is dwarfed in the
Hollywood spectacle of it all.
that, von Sydow was a relative unknown to American audiences at
the time the movie was made; thus, the filmmakers undermine him
by casting as many famous faces in as many of the bit parts as
possible to compensate for his obscurity. Look for Sydney Portier,
Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, John Wayne, Martin Landau, Angela
Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, Claude Rains, Donald Pleasence, and
many others in roles so insignificant that they seem to have been
cast by drawing their characters out of a hat. It is clear that
Greatest Story only features these actors to exploit
their star power, and therefore, when they pop up dressed up in
absurd costumes to mutter their pointless lines and vanish, laughter
is solicited more than awe. Perhaps if these actors has been given
an opportunity to flesh out their parts and...well...act (such
as in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth) we could
forgive their pointless appearances. Instead, they all only succeed
in making total fools out of themselves.
not sure why Hollywood felt the need to turn the story of Christ
into a film of epic proportions. They seem to forget that an epic
does not necessarily mean the style of filming and size of the
production, but rather, the size of the ideas in the story itself,
and the life of Christ had enough of that without studio intervention.
Read the gospels carefully, and you will find that the life of
Christ is a deeply internal story, with Jesus spending much time
in prayer and personal reflection as he teaches humility and love.
His message is profound and radical, and it speaks for itself.
The story certainly doesn't have, nor does it need, the special
effects and stirring action of, say, the adventures of Moses or
Samson. Pity that Hollywood felt the need to invent them for their
version of Christ.
here to to learn about the many cinematic faces of Christ.
Max von Sydow: Jesus Christ
And many, many, many, many, many others.
MGM presents a George Stevens
Production. Directed by George Stevens (with unbilled work by
David Lean and Jean Negulesco. Written by Stevens and James Lee
Barrett. Rated G (fine for kids, but they'll probably find it
very boring). Running time: 260 minutes. Original United States
theatrical release date: February 15, 1965.