The Greatest Story Ever Told was a flop with critics and audiences in its day, and is no better thought of today. Unfairly best known for a one-line cameo by John Wayne as the centurion solemnly 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.
Audiences found it impossible to suspend disbelief over the film’s parade of well-known stars in major and minor roles: Telly Savalas as Pilate, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, Shelley Winters as the woman with the issue of blood healed by touching Christ’s garment. And Max von Sydow’s austere, otherworldly Jesus was felt to be 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).
And yet, compared with most Hollywood biblical epics, The Greatest Story Ever Told manages to sustain a spirit of genuine reverence and religiosity over showmanship and pageantry. Its deliberate pacing and dreamlike, otherworldly ambiance offer neither the entertainment value of The Ten Commandments nor the comparative psychological and historical realism of Zeffirelli’s subsequent Jesus of Nazareth, yet it is arguably more evocative than either of the spirit of biblical literature.
Specifically, Greatest Story is closest to the transcendent, luminous spirit of the Gospel of John, the prologue of which is borrowed for the opening shot depicting a church fresco of Christ with arms outstretched, invoking a context of 2,000 years of tradition and faith. Much like the Fourth Gospel, dialogue is often pregnant with second meanings and Old Testament (or Christian history) resonances. Von Sydow’s impassive performance is best seen as an interpretation of John’s overtly divine and sovereign Lord, in contrast to the generally clearer indications of humanity in the Synoptics. He isn’t warm or approachable, but he’s persuasively authoritative and all-knowing.
Even when, like other biblical epics, Greatest Story strays jarringly from the biblical text, it often feels less like the contemporary revisionism or speculation of other films than like the strange alternate vision of an apocryphal gospel. The conflation of Lazarus with the rich young man is as startling as DeMille’s Moses–Rameses–Nefretiri triangle or Zeffirelli’s Magi skipping the visit to Herod’s court while Herod waxes indignant about the foreigners who don’t visit him — yet once the initial shock is past, the Lazarus scene doesn’t take me, at least, out of the story in the same way. It isn’t the biblical story, but it doesn’t feel especially like a betrayal of or foreign intrusion into the story either.
Meticulous compositions, stunning cinematography and dramatic Renaissance–esque chiaroscuro lighting and shadow create a stunningly beautiful onscreen world, complemented by the ethereal score by Alfred Newman, Fred Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer. With its dramatic landscapes and sets, this world is obviously a flagrantly Hollywood creation — but so what? The medieval and Renaissance masters painted Gospel scenes with overtly European landscapes, fashions and architecture. This is merely a cultural fact, not an objection or criticism. In the same way, Greatest Story looks like what it is, a Hollywood film — stars and all. What does it matter if Death Valley doesn’t look much like Israel, or if a cast of unknowns might have evoked greater “realism”?
There are flaws. The generally ultra-serious mood works on its own terms, but occasional lapses into mundane conversational naturalism seem out of place. (James: “Jesus… that’s a good name.” Jesus: “Thank you.”) Some of the departures, such as the semi-exoneration of Judas (less pure than Zeffirelli’s innocent dupe, but still indignantly protesting that he’s “not interested in the money” when the New Testament record indicates otherwise), hurt the film more than others.
While the personalities of the Hollywood stars seldom overwhelm the film, one that does is Charlton Heston’s John the Baptist. Although Wayne’s much-ridiculed line reading at the cross is the film’s most famously dicey moment, it doesn’t hold a candle to Heston’s silliest scene, so campy that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t deliberate.
Heston plays the Baptist not with ultra-reverence, à la The Ten Commandments’s post–burning bush Moses, but in macho, 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 scornfully flings back: “I have orders to bring you to God.” The confrontation climaxes in a moment of near-Pythonesque absurdity as the soldiers leap upon the Baptist in the river, whereupon he seizes them and begins forcibly ducking them in a virtual parody of baptism, thundering, “Repent! Repent!”
Fortunately, this isn’t indicative of the 198 other minutes. Prayerful voiceovers, chanted prayers and constant allusions to Old Testament prophecy create a palpable, poetic sense of meditative awareness, with characters often artificially conscious of the significance of the events they enact (Savalas’s Pilate even has a moment of foreboding in which the words of the Creed seem to come to his mind unbidden: “suffered under Pontius Pilate…”). It’s almost closer in spirit to a church pageant than a Hollywood spectacle — and I mean that in a good way.
The high point is probably the raising of Lazarus, with bold but effective use of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. The Resurrection sequence repeats this approach, to mitigated effect, but still with real transcendence far surpassing the tacked-on resurrection coda of Jesus of Nazareth. If not the greatest, it’s still a remarkable and heartfelt cinematic telling of the greatest story ever told.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.