Wednesday 14 June 2017

Movie Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

A slow-moving version of Jesus' life story as described in the Gospel, The Greatest Story Ever Told lacks cinematic heart and soul. The film best resembles a well-intentioned but creatively challenged Catholic high school play on a big budget.

Jesus is born in a Bethlehem barn, in the presence of three elderly men who traveled a long distance guided by a bright star. The Roman client king Herod the Great (Claude Rains), fearing a prophecy about the birth of a great leader, orders the killing of all infants in Bethlehem, but Jesus is smuggled to safety. More than thirty years later John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) is proclaiming the imminent arrival of God's messenger, calling on all to repent and baptizing them in the Jordan river.

Jesus (Max von Sydow) appears and is baptized by John, before heading to the hills and meeting the Dark Hermit (Donald Pleasence), a personification of Satan. Jesus then returns to civilization and starts preaching his teachings of love, tolerance and humility, gaining followers including James, Matthew, and Judas (David McCallum). King Herod Antipas (Jose Ferrer) starts to hear of Jesus, his followers and his healing miracles, as does the prefect of Judaea Pontius Pilate (Telly Savalas). With Jesus' followers multiplying and his reputation spreading, King Herod and Pontius Pilate conspire to arrest him.

A grand, costly film produced and directed by George Stevens, The Greatest Story Ever Told arrived late in the cycle of Hollywood's historical epics, and helped bring to an end the popularity of the genre. For all its good intentions, the film is stiff, overly reverential, and awkwardly staged. At close to three and a half hours (there are also longer and shorter versions), it is also protracted and tiresome, with a snoozy Alfred Newman music score.

Adding to the sense of stagey aloofness, the film was shot with the single camera Cinerama process. The already slow pacing suffers from the resultant stiff character placement and interactions, with very few close-ups and characters seemingly never facing each other even when exchanging dialogue. Many scenes feature static postcard-style arrangements, and most of the film suffers from Every Spoken Word Is Important And Shall Be Recorded In A Future Film syndrome.

The film runs through most of the highlights of Jesus' life, although surprisingly his walk on water and feeding the multitudes occur off-camera. The raising of Lazarus is a highlight, but Stevens focuses on reactions rather than the event itself.

Continuing the trend previously seen in The Longest Day and How The West Was Won, Stevens employed pretty much every star name in Hollywood. A familiar face appears in almost every role, including Van Heflin, Dorothy McGuire, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Michael Ansara, Carroll Baker, Angela Lansbury, Robert Loggia, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo and Sidney Poitier. Most of the stars get one scene, and some have literally a few seconds of screen time. And it only takes about two seconds for John Wayne's cowboy drawl to ruin the film's emotional highlight.

Faring better are Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston in the two most prominent roles. von Sydow was cast because he was a relative unknown, and brings a quiet dignity to the proceedings, doing his best in difficult circumstances. Heston knows a cheesy epic when he sees one, and tears into the role of John The Baptist with venom.

The Greatest Story Ever Told is useful as a straightforward history lesson on a familiar topic, but is much less engaging as a movie.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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