The Greatest Story Ever Told

| April 9, 2011

Much has been written in the history of film scholarship relating films to dreams and relating the act of viewing a film to the act of experiencing a dream. Such a theory implies a lack of cognition on the part of the subject/viewer, and this has sparked a theoretical war still being fought in film theory today. Regardless of which side is “right,” there are undeniably times in the viewing of films where we are absorbed into the film, forgetting that we’re watching a movie and almost becoming a part of the film. However, in the work of true masters, there will come a certain shot or a certain sequence that reminds us that we’re watching a master at work, that will snap us out of the hold of “the apparatus” and make us fully aware of the brilliance that went into creating the magnificent spectacle we currently have the pleasure of viewing, and for George Stevens, he can boast a multitude of films that never allow us to forget for even a second his masterful craftsmanship.
Even beyond the legendary films he made in his career, from early films such as Alice Adams, Gunga Din, and Woman of the Year to his later work like A Place in the Sun, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank, what makes Stevens so special is the way his mastery is evident even in films that are, on the whole, somewhat underwhelming. One such example is Stevens’ mammoth 1965 production The Greatest Story Ever Told. His commitment to this film is comparable to Selznick’s determination on Gone with the Wind, only Stevens’ passion project failed to live up to the expectations. The cyclicality of genre is evident in the sporadic popularity of the epic, and The Greatest Story Ever Told was made in the waning years of the epic “revival” of the 1950s and early 1960s, a revival in which Stevens had previously taken part with his productions of Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Stevens’ ambition here exceeded even those two previous films, for he was determined to create not just a version of the story of Jesus Christ, but the version. Whether or not he succeeded is for you to decide, but what I will say is that, considering how great a filmmaker Stevens was, this film should have been better. Much like his 1956 production of Giant, I feel the task became too overwhelming for Stevens and his desire for size was at the price of quality. He just had so much to do that he couldn’t possibly devote the time and energy needed to produce a film like the masterpiece he gave us with Shane, which is of a much smaller and more intimate scale. It is that type of filmmaking, the humble intimacy of films like Shane and Alice Adams, that I believe showcase Stevens’ brilliance the best, and in The Greatest Story Ever Told, I feel the best scenes are those similarly intimate moments such as Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus or the Last Supper sequence. Stevens’ control of emotionality, of a sense of grandeur and theatricality that remains grounded with thematic resonance and a deep emotional truth, is his greatest gift as a filmmaker, and that skill combined with the quiet and heartfelt performance from von Sydow makes a viewing of this film, regardless of overall determinations of the 200-minute epic, something that you will not regret.
There are also, of course, the infamous cameos from icons of the day. Rather than simply being an ensemble piece, The Greatest Story Ever Told becomes more like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with famous faces popping up all over the place until it becomes comical and detracts from the actual film. Some of the casting, particularly José Ferrer, Charlton Heston, and the legendary Claude Rains (in his final film appearance) was superb and the actors gave memorable performances, while other appearances by the likes of Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, and funniest of all, John Wayne, are beyond defense and are just absurd. Nevertheless, when you consider the size of this film, kicking it aside for such minor complaints about portions of the film that last mere seconds becomes rather silly. For any and all negatives, there are far too many positives to be said about this ambitious testament to the life of Christ to recommend anything but seeing this film, especially now that it has been released on Blu-ray. The transfer is outstanding, rendering much of the gorgeous imagery in stunningly high quality. The morning prayer following the death of John the Baptist is so beautiful that it’s beyond any attempts at verbalization, while the long shots of travel and terrain, including the opening footage shot by David Lean at Stevens’ request, showcase the beautiful vastness of the Southwest locations chosen by Stevens and his production crew. There are a few brief portions of the film where the transfer is a little shaky and the image becomes noticeably grainy and dark, but overall, this is a very high quality Blu-ray that does justice to the wonderful cinematic eye of one of the true masters in the history of filmmaking.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
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