Fox // 1965 // 199 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // April 21st, 2011
The Three Hour Run Time!
If you lived through the 1950s and 1960s, you know that the big budget Biblical epic was to baby boomers what comic books movies are to the youth of today. You could hardly turn around during that period without running into a cinematic story about Jesus or some other famous (and sometimes not-so-famous) character from the Good Book. Usually these starred Charlton Heston, ten dozen camels and a lot of bathrobes. Keeping with tradition this coming Easter is The Greatest Story Ever Told, the story of Jesus Christ presented by George "I Throw Gobs of Money At The Screen" Stevens, now available on Blu-ray care of Fox and MGM Home Entertainment.
The life of Jesus of Nazareth is examined in George Stevens' hugely epic 1965 Biblical masterpiece The Greatest Story Ever Told. The film follows mankind's Savior (played by then-newcomer Max von Sydow, The Exorcist) as he amasses a both a following of apostles (Malcolm McDowell, David McCallum) as well as the downtrodden who have come to hear his message of hope and redemption. Along the way Jesus must contend with the bitter King Herod (Jose Ferrer, Lawrence of Arabia), a vindictive Pontius Pilate (Telly Savalas, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure) and even Satan himself. Come behold the tale of a man who walked on water, brought sight to the blind and became the pivotal event for the religion of Christianity.
It is...(drum roll, please)...The Greatest Story Ever Told!
The Greatest Story Ever Told is lush, epic, lengthy, beautiful, boring, moving, silly and -- finally -- too little, too late. George Stevens' sprawling undertaking is a lot of things at different points of its over three hour (!) run time, and with that kind of commitment you're going to get some good moments, some bad moments and a lot of mediocrity in between.
Only a few weeks ago I reviewed the Biblical epic The King of Kings, which told the story of Jesus Christ and his eventual crucifixion and resurrection. I truly enjoyed that film and its performances -- Jeffrey Hunter made a splendid Jesus, the imagery was magnificent (as well as the triumphant musical score) and the film as a whole was inspiring and important. The same cannot be said for The Greatest Story Ever Told, a movie that buckles under the weight of its own production; it feels disjointed and rather distant even with its fantastic scenery and enough extras to choke a small Zula nation.
I've been trying to pinpoint just where The Greatest Story Ever Told doesn't work, and for some reason it's difficult -- it just sort of sits there, stagnantly looking back at the viewer desperately wanting to be important filmmaking...but fails. Part of it has to do with the runtime; it feels as if Stevens and his crew were attempting to adapt the entire Bible word for word in one film. The movie may have worked better trimmed down to a slimmer two hours. It's the rare movie that can run over three hours and still keep the viewer's attention by the time the end credits start rolling. There is just a certain intangible missing that never allows The Greatest Story Ever Told to reach the heights of its reverent source material.
Certainly you can't fault the film's production values; the movie is filled with traditional and often staggering Biblical imagery. The Greatest Story Ever Told is wonderful to look at, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, the same praise can't be given to the performances in the film. I enjoyed Jeffrey Hunter's performance in King of Kings mainly because the actor wasn't known to me. When Max von Sydow appears as Jesus Christ, it's impossible for me to see the revered actor as the Son of God -- frankly, all I could think about as A) his role as the elderly priest in The Exorcist, and B) as the Devil in the Stephen King adaptation Needful Things. While Von Sydow's expressive eyes and professional delivery are adequate, his accent leaves much to be desired (as does his oddly structured hairstyle, looking like Jesus forgot to heal his blind barber). This isn't a bad performance, just a hard one to take seriously when you can't see this particular actor as the savior of mankind (something that may not be an issue for other viewers).
The rest of The Greatest Story Ever Told's cast is made up of a LOT of a famous faces, many of whom stick out like a sore thumb. When Telly Savalas shows up as Pontius Pilate, all I could think of was, "What the heck is Kojak doing in this movie?" The same goes for Roddy McDowell as the apostle Matthew, conservative crooner and teen idol Pat Boone (as an angel!) and a batty Donald Pleasance as an old hermit, AKA Old Scratch himself (Halloween's Dr. Loomis apparently decided to take a break from pursuing evil to BE evil). Even legendary western hero John Wayne shows up for a cameo (with one of the single worst contextual line readings in this history of film), which makes about as much sense as Mr. Bean popping in for a cameo during Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Charlton Heston's John the Baptist is one of the better 'cameos' in the film, if only because he looks at home in a Biblical epic (as he did in the far superior Ben-Hur).
The real death nail for The Greatest Story Ever Told is the pacing -- no matter how good everything looks, the fact is that this is a sluggish version of the life of Jesus. There are moments that feel as slow as molasses running uphill on a backwards moving treadmill. Although the subject matter is of utmost importance, that doesn't mean Stevens couldn't have injected at least a little humor to the proceedings. The stoically serious tone begins to wear deafeningly thin by hour number three. There are a lot of really good movies out there about the life of Jesus Christ; sadly, The Greatest Story Ever Told isn't one of them.
The Greatest Story Ever Told is presented in 2.75:1 widescreen (in 1080p resolution). Holy cow, talk about a transfer that could use the miraculous gift of Christ's touch. The film starts with the ominous statement that it was transferred from the "best available elements," which apparently was an old DVD copy of the film left on the floor of the MGM vault. There are a LOT of issues with this transfer, not the least of which is that many of the scenes look grainy, dark or filled with defects. Also, this may be the most glitchy catalog title I've ever seen -- jump cuts and even splice issues seem to appear out of nowhere often. To be sure, there are moments where the image looks very good but these moments are few and far between. Compared to Warner Bros.' recent King of Kings (Blu-ray) release, the transfer for The Greatest Story Ever Told looks downright ugly.
The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 in English, and fares far better than the disappointing video transfer. The best thing about this mix is composer Alfred Newman's symphonic score, almost worth the film's lethargic runtime. Otherwise, this track is serviceable if not spectacular -- the dialogue sounds good and the background noises are all well mixed. Surround sounds are at a minimum here, save for a few brief moments where the rear speakers are engaged. Also included on this disc are English, French and German subtitles, as well as a Spanish 2.0 mix, a German DTS 5.1 mix and a French 5.1 mix.
The extra features included on this disc give viewers a very small insight into the production of the film. "He Walks in Beauty" is a fifteen minute documentary that features Charlton Heston, Shelly Winters, Rouben Mamoulain and other recounting their time working with George Stevens. "Filmmaker" is a vintage documentary featurette that shows off behind the scenes footage from the shoot. Finally there is a short deleted scene as well as a theatrical trailer for the film.
I know there are supporters of The Greatest Story Ever Told out there. If you are a fan of classic Bible stories from the 1950s and '60s, you may very well enjoy this film. The rest of you may want to check out some of the far better movies available, including Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and (if you can stomach the violence) The Passion of the Christ.
The Greatest Story Ever Told's title may be true, but not for this version of the story.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.76:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 199 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Scene