by Mel Valentin
Every year during springtime, Roman Catholics everywhere celebrate Easter Sunday, the date generally ascribed to the physical and spiritual resurrection of Jesus Christ. It should come as no surprise then at least one cable channel will air one of the big-studio versions of the New Testament/Gospel narrative. This time around, it was 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told."Directed by George Stevens, the man behind the camera for Gunga Din, Penny Serenade, A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant (David Lean and Jean Negulesco provided uncredited directorial assistance), The Greatest Story Ever Told is a failure of staggering proportions, a failure of nerve and imagination. Laying out Jesus' ministry, betrayal and crucifixion in classically composed tableaux, Stevens (and his screenwriters) forgot to include anything resembling a character arc for Jesus or for any of his disciples, let alone moments of emotional authenticity. Instead, the actors stiffly deliver their lines with the self-conscious realization that they're participating in a solemn, important production, not just entertainment, or even art, but a film production guided by the unseen hand of the one and only (Christian) divinity.
"Bombast, spectacle, and inert drama make for a mesmerizing experience."
The Greatest Story Ever Told is solemn, pedantic, sanitized (Jesus' scourging and crucifixion are relatively bloodless), and ultimately, dull. The characters are lifeless, the performances inert, from Jesus (played inexpressively by a blue-eyed Max von Sydow) to the most minor supporting character. The dialogue is generally limited to religious instruction drawn from the Gospels (e.g., The Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Jesus isn't a human being here (per Christian dogma, Jesus is both human and divine). Jesus is a wisdom teacher prone to striking a faux-iconic pose (i.e., outstretched arms) and a sometime miracle worker. Even Lazarus' resurrection scene, a key moment in the Gospel of Luke prefiguring Jesus' own resurrection, shows a lack of nerve. Rather thank showing the resurrection, the scene plays out across the faces of Jesus' devout followers over the course of three to five minutes of screen time. Why then give The Greatest Story Ever Told a positive recommendation?
Before he became an A-list director helming big budget, prestige films, George Stevens worked as a cinematographer, and it shows. For the most part, camera remains static in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Instead Stevens relies on composition and mise-en-scene (placement and movement of objects within the frame). Extravagantly budgeted (it was the biggest box office flop before Heaven's Gate took that dubious title in 1980), The Greatest Story Ever Told was filmed on location, with Arizona and Utah standing in for Jerusalem and the greater (ancient) Middle East. More attention, apparently, was given to the use of color, light and shadow, and composition than to story, character, or performance, with Stevens and his screenwriters interested in representing Jesus strictly as a divine figure.
Second, if The Greatest Story Ever Told didn't inspire a drinking game at the time of its release, it certainly should have. While the story limps along from scene to scene, viewer interest can be maintained by playing spot the celebrity/actor in a cameo role. Among the actors appearing in The Greatest Story Ever Told are Charlton Heston (playing Moses, I mean Ben-Hur, I mean John the Baptist), Telly Savalas (of Kojak fame, who first shaved his head for this role and never looked back) as Pontius Pilate, Roddy McDowell (the Planet of the Apes franchise) as the Apostle Matthew, Dorothy McGuire (Written on the Wind) as Mary, Mother of Jesus, Jose Ferrer (Oscar winner for Cyrano de Bergerac) as Herod Antipas, Martin Landau (Mission Impossible, Space: 1999, Ed Wood) as Caiphas, Victor Buono as Sorak (ok, I looked that one up, but Buono was one of my favorite guest villains on the Adam West Batman TV-series; that's right, Victor Buono was King Tut), David McCallum (Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as Judas Iscariot, Claude Rains The Invisible Man, Casablanca) as Herod the Great, Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H) as Thaddeus, John Wayne (The Searchers, Rio Bravo) as a Roman centurion (yes, you read that correctly), and get this, Donald Pleasance (Halloween, Escape From New York) as Satan (and many, many more actors from television, stage, and movies in minor roles).Overall, for reasons difficult to comprehend or even express (perhaps the Holy Spirit was working through me that day), "The Greatest Story Ever Told" deserves a marginal recommendation, especially for fans of camp or kitsch. Now, if I could only find the DVD cheaply on ebay.com, I'd be set. Or not. Gifts, of course, are always welcome. Seriously, there are really only two versions of the New Testament/Jesus narrative worth recommending, Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," followed by the more orthodox and reverent, if still moving, version directed by Franco Zefferilli in the late 1970s for network television, "Jesus of Nazareth."
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originally posted: 06/03/05 20:05:38