By the mid '60s, the Biblical epic was more or less dead. Big screen experiences like Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, and The Ten Commandments gave way to lesser entries like The Robe and The Bible. While certain topics were seen as guarantees, even the life of Christ suffered by commercial comparison. When then teen heart throb Jeffrey Hunter was pegged as Jesus for Nicholas Ray's quasi-remake of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings, critics complained loudly. Many pointed to Hunter's "matinee idol" appearance, which broke with the tradition of not clearly showing Christ's face. Four years later another minor uproar would arrive when Swedish sensational Max Von Sydow was cast as the Son of Man in George Steven's long gestated The Greatest Story Ever Told. Aside from the language barrier, which saw the star making his very first appearance in an English speaking role, the movie was strewn with a series of Love Boat like celebrity cameos which constantly disrupted the production's noble intentions. Now, some 46 years later, there's an even bigger problem facing this film - it's a talky, narrative bore, missing most of the meaning in Jesus' important life and times.
Focusing on the power struggle between the senior King Herod and his ambitious son, the beginning of The Greatest Story Ever Told is all Judea and Rome. Control of the region careens back and forth until a new regional governor is seated and the younger Herod takes over. During the turmoil, three wise men show up looking for the new "ruler" of the region - one indicated by a bright star in the sky. While powerless, young Herod still has the ear of the local religious leaders, many of whom are starting to mention these rumblings about a Messiah, and a new "King of the Jews." Instantly, we are hurled into the latter life of Jesus Christ (we witness his birth in a moment linking the wise men's quest to the rest of the film). As he moves toward Bethlehem, curing the lame and blind, raising the dead and preaching his message of tolerance and God's love, he is joined by a ragtag group of apostles, many of whom voice a concern about his broad pronouncements. As usual, all the highlights are hit - Sermon on the Mount, the temple full of moneychangers, Judas' betrayal, the trial in front of Pilate, the stations of the Cross, the crucifixion and the Resurrection.
We critics like to call it "period inappropriateness" and it happens whenever a film set within a specific era ends up casting actors who cannot overcome their contemporary persona. In the old days, performers were often pegged for what they created as an entertainment aura more than their Method skills with characterization. Almost all costume dramas suffer from this movie malady, but Biblical epics seem to have it the worst. For every Vincent Price of Sal Mineo, there's an Edward G. Robinson or a John Wayne. The former find a way to get lost in their particular portrayals. The others are too identifiable with their previous oeuvre to be inconspicuous. The Greatest Story Ever Told suffers from a great deal of P.I. It just can't seem to set a consistent tone. One moment, Charleton Heston will be bringing da dogmatic noise as a thoroughly Neanderthal (he is very good, by the way) John the Baptist, the next, you're waiting for Telly Savalas' Pilate to ask Jesus "Who love ya, baby?" Stevens desire, at the time, to cast a relative unknown as Christ worked well then, as Von Sydow was more or less an arthouse fixture, nothing more. But in 2011, it's almost comical that the man who would go on to play the Devil's chief nemesis in The Exorcist, the primary villain in the SCTV/Bob and Doug film Strange Brew, and Satan substitute Leland Gaunt in Needful Things as the Son of God.
Luckily, Von Sydow is believable and Stevens really sells, it, at least for a while. He also gets interesting turns out of Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, David McCallum (as Judas) and Robert Blake (as Simon the Zealot). On the other hand, appearances by Dorothy McGuire (as the Virgin Mary), vaudevillian Ed Wynn (as Old Aram), and non-entity Joanna Dunham (as Mary Magdalene) argue for "whoever was hanging around the commissary" ideal. But for all his vast scope and stunning scenery, he can't overcome the film's main flaw - at over three hours, it is a dull, derivative bore. Now, no one is asking him to turn the story of Jesus into a controversial bit of torture porn ala Mel Gibson's fundamentalist The Passion of The Christ, but the tone here is so rigid and unrealistically reverent that the movie literally sits, inert, unable to move in any definable or emotive direction. Instead, characters blather on and on in a manner reminiscent of listening to a monotone storyteller read from an abridged version of The Gospels.
This may be the rare case when studio mandated cuts (the movie was originally more than four hours long before Stevens was told to trim its up) actually lessened the final product's impact. There are facets of the familiar story that are missing here, from some minor miracles to the major (the whole persecution before crucifixion subtext). In their place is more and more talking, stoic shots of the cast and then some more endless discussions. Certainly, some of what is being said is moving and quite accomplished. But for the most part, The Greatest Story Ever Told focuses far too much on the "telling" and not enough on the "showing." Moses may have been a tad too heroic in his depiction ala The Ten Commandments, but at least DeMille understood that it's better to illustrate the majesty of God than to simply explain it to people. While this version of The Passion doesn't have moments akin to the parting of the Red Sea or the Burning Bush, it does offer an opportunity for a filmmaker to "flesh out" what is, otherwise, a rather staid and somber tale. There is no denying that Stevens et. al. meant well with their version of the New Testament. Sadly, The Greatest Story Ever Told is not the most compelling or entertaining version of the tale ever presented.
Fair warning, eager film fan. Fox begins its Blu-ray presentation arguing that HD update of The Greatest Story Ever Told with a caveat, claiming it is taken from the best available source elements they can access. Translation - this is a troubled transfer, no question. There are times when the movie looks magnificent, the AVC encoded 1080p 2.75:1 widescreen presentation as fresh and new as the day it was made. This is especially true of the Von Sydow material, as well as almost anything to do with the trial and crucifixion. But somewhere in the middle of the marathon experience, the image quality dips significantly. Colors are no longer flat and the picture has an almost VHS quality to the appearance. The detail is still there, but the upgrade in quality is not. On a percentage scale, the format change for The Greatest Story Ever Told is about 60% better than its DVD predecessor. That still leaves 40% with little or no recognizable improvement.
Though it is given a full lossless 5.1 Master Audio DTS-HD mix, the only thing that The Greatest Story Ever Told benefits from with such a broadening is the syrupy score. Alfred Newman really turns on the epic schmaltz here and the multichannel approach provides maximum manipulation. Otherwise, the speakers offer very little in the way of directional or spatial support. The dialogue - and there is a lot of it - is always crisp and clear and the entire presentation is fuller than the original Mono track. This is just not an update in name only, though at times, the technology of the day makes it seem that way.
We are treated to a terrific documentary ("He Walks in Beauty") which outlines the many battles fought to bring this story to the screen. We get some insight into the original intention, as well as some nifty behind the scenes discussions. While it could be significantly longer, it's a nice supplement. Similarly, a mini-doc on Stevens is fine, and the deleted scene (uneventful) and trailer comprise the rest of the complements. While a complicated production like this probably deserves more, this is apparently all the studio could manage - and for the most part, that's perfectly okay.
Saved or not, religious or simply "spiritual", movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told shouldn't be more dogmatic than dynamic. Yet that's exactly what happens here. Even with Max Von Sydow in full blown God mode and a gorgeous look, the film is still a blessedly boring event. While it may sound blasphemous to say so, a Skip It might be in order. Still, in order to salvage the ethos from the lack of enjoyment, a rating of Rent It will be offered. That way, those so enamored with the tale and that can tolerate even the most snail's paced palaver of same won't feel critically slighted. Interestingly enough, the '70s saw a revival of sorts in the religious epic, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell helping to contemporize the often antiquated genre. If you want an example of why things had to change, just take a gander at this uneven effort. While righteous enough, The Greatest Story Ever Told eventually becomes simply the most boring.