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84 of 85 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The most reverential of all of the movies about Jesus, 6 Dec. 2003
This review is from: The Greatest Story Ever Told [VHS] [1965] (VHS Tape)
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is certainly the most reverential treatment of the life of Jesus. The 1965 movie was based on the book by Fulton Oursler, which integrated the four Gospels into a single narrative. To appreciate this task just look at the different versions of what Jesus said on the cross according to each Gospel. Reconciling the various versions is not an easy task and while viewers may question some of the specific choices, the only really significant alteration is the death of Judas by throwing himself into the sacrificial pit of the Great Temple, a symbolism that is unnecessarily heavy handed.
The choice of Max Von Sydow to play Jesus is an interesting selection to say the least. His slight Swedish accent and closely cropped beard are certainly in keeping with the reverential tone of the film, but I can not help wondering if this was something of a reaction to the more populist Jesus portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings." After all, this was 1965 and the Beatles invasion was underway making male hair length a hot issue. This is a Jesus who is too solemn and too sedate for the most part. There is a nice moment where one of the new disciples comments that he likes Jesus' name. The smile and "Thank you" that follow are one of the few glimpses of the charisma of the man from Galilee.
The strength of the film is in the gorgeous cinematography by William C. Mellor (who died on the set of a heart attack) and Loyal Griggs, and scene composition under the direction of George Stevens. The opening narration goes from the opening verses of John shot over ancient Christian murals to a shot of the manager, ending with a shot of the hand of the baby Jesus as the narrator announces in a most simple manner, "The Greatest Story Ever Told." The juxtaposition of images and moments from the live of Jesus is prevalent throughout the film. When Mary and Joseph return from Egypt they travel the road to Nazareth that is lined with the crucified victims of the Roman occupation. The voice of John the Baptist is first heard over a series of aerial shots covering the many miles traveled by all those who came to hear him make straight the way of the Lord.
Stevens shows a deft touch in the large scenes involving crowds. The resurrection of Lazarus is down in a long shot, with the focus more on the faces of those who are witnessing the miracle rather than on the actual emergence from the tomb. To the finale of the Hallelujah Chorus a trio of the faithful ran across the plain to the gates of Jerusalem to spread the good news. There is also a wonderful scene of the confrontation between the Roman soldiers and the crowd that had come to the Temple to hear Jesus preach at night. The film also contains some nice small touches. When Pilate presents Jesus to the people, the figure of Satan strides through the crowd to utter the first demand for crucifixion. When Mary Magdalene remembers the promise of the resurrection and Thomas proclaims his disbelief, Peter looks up and sees the smiling face of Lazarus. The musical score by Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer and Fred Steiner is wonderfully attuned to what is on the screen.
The main problem is not that there are so many stars in this film-Charlton Heston is an imposing John the Baptist, and Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Sal Mineo as Uriah, and Van Heflin as Bar Amand all perform admirably-but rather the cameo appearances that invariably detract from the moment. It is one thing to recognize David McCallum, Jamie Farr and Russell Johnson in "before they were stars" roles, but it is quite another to suddenly see Sidney Portier help carry the cross or John Wayne silhouetted against the darkening sky as a Roman Centurion. While such cameos may have worked in "The Longest Day" or "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" during the heyday of the fad, they most certainly do not work in this film.
I was surprised to learn this movie was filmed around the Lake Powell region of Arizona, having always assumed it had been filmed in the Holy Land. I would be interested to know which scenes were directed without credit by David Lean (who was finishing up "Doctor Zhivago" at the time) and Jean Negulesco ("Johnny Belinda" and the 1953 "Titanic"). I want to resist the impulse to credit my favorite scenes to Lean rather than Stevens.
The reverential tone of the film ends up hurting the pacing so that it seems overlong at 3 hours and 14 minutes. Ultimately I prefer the vitality of Zefferelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" and the monumental performance of Robert Powell as the quintessential Jesus. But there are several lovely moments in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and I always end up screening one version at Christmas and the other at Easter. The print obviously needs to be RESTORED and the film really should be seen in the widescreen format, although that makes the credits impossible to read
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Apr 2009 22:35:03 BDT
Hades says:
Great write up......I never knew it was based on the book by Fulton Oursler. In fact I never even thought where the story came from (apart from the bible). I have now ordered the film and the book and look forward to both in great detail. Many thanks.
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Lawrance Bernabo
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Location: The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota

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