National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 9:00 AM


The Greatest Story ever Told (1965)  - Pick

An Easter DVD offering from MGM Home Entertainment, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a flop with critics and audiences. It isn’t well remembered today. But I, for one, find it significantly better than its reputation suggests.

Unfairly best known for a one-line cameo by John Wayne as the centurion drawling, “Truly this man was the Son of Gawd,” director George Stevens’ intended masterpiece was the most lavish Bible film ever produced. Its failure at the box office killed the Hollywood Bible epic genre for decades to come.

Audiences found it impossible to suspend disbelief over the film’s parade of well-known movie stars in major and minor roles: Telly Savalas as Pilate, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, Shelley Winters as the woman healed by touching Christ’s garment. They also found Max von Sydow’s austere, otherworldly Jesus off-putting and unapproachable.

Stevens’ decision to shoot the film in the American Southwest was criticized for hurting the film’s realism. Then there’s the deliberate pacing and lengthy running time (199 minutes on DVD).

But wait. Since when has realism been a necessary concern in religious art? The medieval and Renaissance masters painted Gospel scenes with European landscapes, fashions and architecture. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a flagrantly Hollywood film, not a pseudo-documentary. So what if Death Valley looks nothing like Israel, or if a cast of unknowns might have been more “real”?

From the outset, Stevens establishes a spirit of genuine reverence and religiosity unmatched by many biblical productions: the opening shot of a church fresco depicting Christ with arms outstretched, accompanied by the opening words of the Fourth Gospel, invoking a context of 2,000 years of tradition and faith.

The high point is probably the raising of Lazarus, with bold but effective use of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” The approach isn’t quite as effective in the Resurrection sequence, but still achieves real transcendence.

Meticulous compositions, stunning cinematography and dramatic Renaissance-style lighting make Greatest Story a remarkably beautiful film.

It’s not without flaws. The generally ultra-serious mood works on its own terms, but occasional lapses into mundane conversational naturalism seem out of place. (James: “That’s a good name.” Jesus: “Thank you.”)

Although the personalities of the Hollywood stars seldom overwhelm the film, one that does is Charlton Heston’s John the Baptist. Wayne’s much-ridiculed line reading at the cross doesn’t hold a candle to Heston’s most hilarious moment, so campy that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t deliberate.

Heston plays the Baptist not with ultra-reverence, a la his performance as Moses in The Ten Commandments, but in defiant “Get your stinking paws off me” Planet of the Apes mode. When the leader of a Herodian force sent to arrest him barks, “We have orders to bring you to Herod,” Heston flings back: “I have orders to bring you to God.” As the soldiers leap on him in the river, he seizes them and begins forcibly dunking them in a virtual parody of baptism, thundering, “Repent! Repent!”

Fortunately, this isn’t indicative of the 198 other minutes. Get past Heston’s swagger and you’ve got, if not the greatest, still a remarkable and heartfelt cinematic telling of the greatest story ever told.

Content advisory
Mild Gospel story menace and violence; references to adultery  Generally fine family viewing.