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The most perplexing Biblical epic of them all is 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, a vastly expensive George Stevens production that, while not exactly a Heaven's Gate, was a major box office disappointment for United Artists. Once again we have a giant Bible epic that covers familiar ground in the effort to make a definitive statement for the devoutly faithful. Stevens sought 'artistic inspiration' from Carl Sandburg and high church officials and was no doubt convinced that this would be his magnum opus, the movie the world needed the most in troubled times. But he didn't make that movie. Told is an odd epic indeed. Its strongest assests are beautiful images of American desert scenery (looking nothing like anybody's idea of the Holy Land) and a particularly emotional music score from Alfred Newman.
Starting in silent films with (among others) Laurel & Hardy, George Stevens made some of the brightest and funniest comedies in Hollywood. After the war he turned almost exclusively to serious dramas, which became longer and more ponderous through the 1950s -- A Place in the Sun, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank. By 1960 he was a walking liberal institution awarded with many honors and tapped for cultural work by the Kennedy administration. Then came The Greatest Story Ever Told, where Stevens decided to make the definitive movie on the life of Christ.
Told filmed for more than two years, mostly on vast landscapes in and around National Parks. Stevens loaded his cast with movie stars, making this supposedly devout picture a bigger 'spot the Hollywood ham' show than Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Some of the casting is good, as with Max von Sydow's Christ, who has the power to energize the screen even when nothing is happening. Von Sydow stares like Svengali when performing miracles, and we feel with him when he suffers the oppressive weight of his role on Earth. Charlton Heston also rises to the occasion, as a fiery John the Baptist. But far too many of the other actors stand out like sore thumbs. Everybody takes turns waiting to put on faces, as needed, of noble suffering or of beatific rapture. Dorothy McGuire gives the baby Jesus her most motherly smile. We wait for Ed Wynn to make us laugh. Shelley Winters squawks uncontrollably and Sidney Poitier shows up to bolster Stevens' embarrassingly obvious Civil Rights angle. Merciless ridicule has been heaped on the film for a brief bit in which John Wayne glowers from within the Centurion's helmet and snarls, "Truly this Man was the Son of God." It's The Greatest All-Star Cast Going Biblical Ever Told.
The movie is over-directed and over-controlled. White-robed Biblical Hebrews are positioned around the screen like so many potted plants, while the main characters mill slowly about (or sit still) for one sober scene after another. Stevens' directing style, if he really carried it out as claimed by participants, isn't a style at all but an attempt to cover every scene from every angle and every distance. Von Sydow and others say that he repeated every part of a scene for days, 'bracketing' every camera angle from close-up to full wide shot, sometimes moving only a couple of feet back for each take. How fresh can a scene be when it's performed 120 times over four days?
The method sounds like an analog method for obtaining unlimited editorial flexibility for every scene, almost like the CGI 3D environment created for James Cameron's Avatar. Like Cameron, Stevens could block out the film's direction in the editing room. He filled vaults with expensive 70mm footage, very little of which is be seen on screen.
Even with years to shoot, weather and other problems forced Stevens to hire other directors to meet his deadlines. David Lean shot some early scenes with Claude Rains. Stevens holds many scenes in extreme wide shots, which in Ultra Panavision 70 results in huge tableaux that must have been pictorially impressive on a huge Road Show screen, like a procession of giant murals. But many of his filmic choices are wanting. The film opens by tilting down a (Vatican?) interior to a kitschy painting of Von Sydow as Jesus. After listening to over two hours of Alfred Newman's beautiful main theme, the exultant raising of Lazarus is accompanied by a relatively uninspired use of the Handel's Allellujah chorus. Unlike earlier, more subdued versions of the Christ story, this script wants us to believe every miracle as if it is happening on the screen in front of us right now -- Stevens seems to expect us to be transported and shed tears of joy. It doesn't happen that way. Instead we shake our heads at unexpectedly trite dialogue, as when Jesus is introduced to James the Younger, one of his new disciples (Michael Anderson Jr.). James asks Jesus his name, Jesus says his name, James says it's a nice name and Jesus says thank you. It's stultifying, like an English language lesson in Sunday School.
Perhaps nobody has found the right way of telling Jesus' story without bringing in a lot of extraneous baggage. Critics often contrast The Greatest Story Ever Told to Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a simple B&W film using Italian peasants in the main parts. I've seen this film twice and it didn't do much for me except to provide a sane counterpoint to the bloated super-epics. Religious feeling, or the joy of faith, isn't all that common in films but we remember the ones that work for us personally. Church-sponsored shows tend to be pretty pitiful, not because their messages are bad but because they're often not well made. I've been touched mostly by moments, by actors that hit the right note of inspiration for my particular sensibilities, and not necessarily in a "churchy" movie. The little picture Godspell can be wince inducing, but the faces of its flaky hippies happily singing the song Day by Day somehow touches me each time I see it -- the only content there is the joy of faith. A moment of pacifist forgiveness in Friendly Persuasion hits me too. It's all a subjective game.
Every movie has its devout fans. Even when I'm critical of a title it's something of a comfort to be able to assure interested viewers that the disc they'll be buying will live up to their hopes. But in the case of MGM's Blu-ray of The Greatest Story Ever Told, I have more bad news. This is one of the few discs I've reviewed that looks like an almost complete mistake. Filmed in the huge, super-wide Ultra Panavision 70mm process, it should be one of the better-looking discs out there. But the transfer is simply no good: very grainy and unexpectedly soft. I'm shocked that the 20th Fox Home Video distributors approved it because of their usual high quality standards -- their 70mm title Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is exemplary. The Told transfer is from eleven years ago!
We looked forward to seeing Stevens' many wide shots more clearly on the Blu-ray, but the new disc may be even less distinct than the old non-anamorphic DVD. And as the film's original beautiful cinematography is probably the reason to see the film, the fact that it can't be appreciated here just kills all desire to watch. We're left with Alfred Newman's celebrated music score, and not much else.
The same extras from the earlier DVD are present -- an original making-of featurette from the film's Utah set; a 2000 docu on the making of the movie, culled from unused interviews from a docu on George Stevens; and a new transfer of a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.