“In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. I am He. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him, was made nothing that has been made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of man. And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not. The greatest story ever told…”
Every spring around the time of Easter you could count on several annual films to make their way to televisions across the country for special family presentations. For Easter you had The Greatest Story Ever Told and King Of Kings. For Passover there was always The Ten Commandments. And so it is an appropriate time to see all three of these films make their way unto high definition and Blu-ray for the very first time. We’ve already reported on the excellent release of The Ten Commandments and King Of Kings. Our review of The Greatest Story Ever Told concludes this Holy Trinity of movies to review.
Like King Of Kings, this film attempts to tell the story of Jesus using the Bible’s Gospels to provide much of the narrative and story. In many ways this is a far superior film to the King Of Kings. The cast is far more inspired and is of one of the best-known casts to be assembled in one film. The portrayal is also far more solemn and respectful. The earlier film thought it was important to have more action, so its loyalties were divided between the story of Christ and an embellished version of Barabbas and his rebellion. It put the film more squarely in the common sword-and-sandals category. The Greatest Story Ever Told does not attempt to take your attention from Christ and his life. It is a quieter film that has gone on to become one of the best depictions of the life of Jesus Hollywood has offered.
The real strength here is the outstanding cast. And I’m not talking about the obvious winners. Max von Sydow was actually a relative unknown at the time he was cast as Jesus. He certainly has the face and demeanor for the role, even with the shorter, more modern haircut. It’s ironic today that he would go on to fight the Devil literally to the death as Father Merrin in The Exorcist. The older Herod would be played by The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains. His son and later King Herod is played with wonderful intensity by Jose Ferrer. Pontius Pilate was played by “Who loves ya, Baby” Telly Savalas. Even the apostles, who don’t really get as much to do in this film as you would expect, are played by well established names that include Roddy McDowall, Gary Raymond, Jamie Farr and another Invisible Man David McCallum as the infamous Judas. Martin Landau gave life to Caiaphas, while Batman’s King Tut Victor Buono was his partner in crime Sorak. Donald Pleasence plays Satan. Of course, who can forget Charlton Heston as John the Baptist?
But it wasn’t merely the title roles that brought out name actors. Plenty of big names wanted in this project so badly that they were content to play very small parts just to lend their talents to the story. Watching this movie is like going on a scavenger hunt. Look for these names in very fleeting roles that almost defy their stature: John Wayne, Mark Lenard, Pat Boone, Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Ed Wynn, John Abbott, Robert Blake, David Hedison, John Crawford, Robert Loggia, Russell Johnson, Richard Conte, and Nehemiah Persoff.
George Stevens deserves a lot of credit for why so many names were willing to take small roles. He had a reputation for being a fine director, and this is considered one of his masterpiece films. It would end up being a crowning achievement because it would be his second-to-last film. Stevens died less than ten years after the film’s release. But his career would include such classics as The Diary of Anne Frank, Shane, and Giant. All of his movies show a personal touch that make even large epic tales like this one appear intimate in many ways. Stevens knew how to get the camera into his subject so that you felt like you were in the same space and anything outside of that space was irrelevant for a time. That style certainly brings the story of Jesus in sharper focus than it had been at any time before.
A documentary on the film begins with a statement that Stevens wanted to bring the story of Jesus to life without embellishment. While it might not be true that he added exaggeration to the story, except in the John the Baptist scenes, it cannot be said that he stayed true to the Biblical story with which most of us are familiar. Stevens takes serious liberties with the time and place of many of Christ’s familiar teachings. In Stevens’ version of The Passion, Judas throws himself into a fire pit rather than hang himself from the famous Judas Tree. A deleted scene shows Judas with a noose before flinging himself into the fire, but that doesn’t really make up for the inaccuracy. Part of the trouble might be that there were quite a few writers on the script including the noted poet Carl Sandburg. The script was very loosely based on a book by Fulton Oursler.
Another common complaint about the film is the location shooting. While Stevens did tour the Holy Land in preparation for the film, he ultimately decided to film the movie in the American West, mostly Utah and Arizona. Even so, the film cost a huge $20 million for the time, pulling in a mere $12 million in the worldwide box office. It was considered very much a flop at the time and only began to draw attention later as an annual television event to celebrate the Easter season. Now you can put a copy of the film on your own shelf, and perhaps your family will find some comfort as well as entertainment each year with The Greatest Story Ever Told.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.75:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 20-25 mbps. Thank you MGM for delivering the film in its native ultra-wide presentation. The movie plays out like a sliver across your 16×9 screen, but it would be impossible to fully appreciate the movie in high definition any other way. Most of us have only seen the film in its butchered television print, and that’s a crime that has finally been rectified with this release. The print itself absolutely shows distress in places. A warning at the beginning tells us that this transfer was made from the best elements available. Remember that the real life of the film for decades was television. The original prints were allowed to decay and often disappear altogether. The result here might be mixed, but it should be appreciated fully. Colors come alive at times, and I assure you that you have never seen the film look better unless you were in the audience at the film’s initial release. There is grain and plenty of dirt, but the image is alive and often quite clear and sharp. Black levels might be poor, but this movie looks about as good as anyone could have expected short of a 4K restoration.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn’t going to wow you at all. It’s often a quiet film that challenges you to pay attention and contemplate what you are viewing. Alfred Neuman’s score is an epic swelling affair at times, but he knew when to back off. There are moments of no score, and it is quite appropriate. You can hear the dialog, but it is soft. There’s very little sub action, and there are moments the sound creeps up on you, so you might want to keep the remote for your amp handy.
Deleted Scene: (2:29) This is an alternate crucifixion scene created for a road show of the movie.
He Walk In Beauty: (14:57) Mostly a piece on George Stevens.
Filmmaker Documentary: (27:38) This look at the production was obviously made as a television special. Cast and crew offer insights along with behind-the-scenes footage and a narration.
George Stevens gives us a wonderful character study of Jesus in his version of events. It stands in direct contrast to King Of Kings and is a completely different kind of movie. You’ll be taken by events more or less according to your own beliefs. It’s a film that can be enjoyed by all faiths. It does not rely on a belief in Christianity at all. It’s not about finding any particular truth. After all, “What is truth?”