THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (Blu-ray Edition)|
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1965 | 199 min | Rated G | Mar 29, 2011
Written by David Hillyer
April 11, 2011
Hollywood, as in our society, thrives on the latest trend. Right now it seems to be vampires and over the top humor. But back in the 1940’s and into the 1960’s the trend was a little tamer. Biblical epics filmed on location with huge sets and large ensemble casts were what everyone was doing. Even on the radio.
In 1947, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a weekly 30 minute radio drama that captured a large audience. Before long, Fulton Oursler turned it into a novel, and the movie rights were quickly grabbed by 20th Century Fox… and there it sat for a long, long time. Nearly ten years later, as George Stevens was working at 20th Century studios, he found out they had the rights to The Greatest Story Ever Told. With a title like that, who could resist making an epic film? He worked for several more years writing the script with others. He consulted with a wide range of people from poet Carl Sandburg to Pope John XXIII. Then he had artist Andre Girard paint over 350 scenes from the life of Christ which would be used as storyboards and title cards for the movie.
“Epic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for big movies with lots of explosions or are just long movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy seems to be the most recent truly “epic” film. The making of those films and the actual story are ones of a journey, of a group who comes together for common purpose and pledges themselves to see it through to the end… just as it was for The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Greatest Story Ever Told is one of those epic movies. It set the stage for such greats as The Ten Commandments and even The Lord of the Rings. Filmed for the then enormous cost of $20 million, nearly $2 million was just used during pre-production.
A then unknown Swedish actor Max Von Sydow was cast as Jesus and the rest of the cast is a real “who’s who” in Hollywood. Stars of the time include Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Martin Landau is Caiaphas, Angela Lansbury is Claudia, Roddy McDowall is Matthew, Sidney Poitier is Simon of Cyrene, Telly Savalas is Pilate, and the list could go on. Unfortunately at times I found myself trying to spot various actors in the crowds instead of paying attention to the story.
Many of the supporting or background actors later went on to fame. Jamie Farr went on to star as Klinger in M*A*S*H. Science Fiction fans will recognize Michael Ansara as Herod’s commander. He later went on to play a Kingon in Star Trek, Kane in Buck Rogers, and Elric the Technomage on Babylon 5. Mark Lenard later played several Star Trek characters including Spock’s father. A film with this many stars would be nearly impossible to get financing these days.
There were several versions of The Greatest Story Ever Told distributed. George Stevens was known for shooting a lot of film with many takes. It wasn’t unusual to have more than 20 takes in a scene. So he had plenty of film to create his masterpiece. The original running time was an astonishing 4 hours and 20 minutes. Then it was cut back to 3:58, then 3:20, then 2:17 for the general USA release. The Blu-Ray is the 3 hours 20 minute version and at times it shows. Those hoping to see John Wayne speak the classic line of “truly this man was the son of God” as seen on network TV broadcast; instead get a distant shot of a soldier standing in the rain with a John Wayne voiceover.
On the whole, I found the film to be very engaging. But the heavy use of dramatic lighting on Jesus’ face and eyes became distracting. The times have changed and people want to see a Jesus who is approachable and human. Many story lines – at least in this cut of the film – are blended together or altered entirely. I couldn’t help feeling like certain stories, such as the accusation of the adulterous woman, lost a great deal of their impact and power due to extensive rewriting. Other films such as “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Matthew”, and “The Gospel of John” adhere to the scriptures much more closely, but certainly with less production value. My concern with any of these films is people will remember the movie more than the scriptural text. So the purposeful actions and moments of Jesus calling his disciples or the location and setting of a healing are less, or lost entirely. Context is everything, and at times it is lost in any of these films, all for the sake of brevity.
Filmed in “Ultra Panavision”, the letterboxed picture we get is a very wide 2.75:1. It provides the wide screen real estate needed to show this epic story and the just as epic landscapes provided by Glen Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Utah where it was filmed. Parts of the movie are in fairly good shape, but those are mostly outdoor scenes with good lighting. Other scenes of dark interiors or matte painting backdrops look horrible. Dark scenes usually have a bad strobe effect caused by a mix of digital artifacts and harsh noise reduction. (spoiler alert) The crucifixion of Jesus at the end of the film is almost unwatchable. Not because of the violence as in Mel Gibson’s recent film “The Passion of the Christ”, but rather the noise level looks like a bad download off the internet. In the scenes that follow where the disciples find an empty tomb, there is a bad splice mark and then horrible blue tint exposure on the bottom half of the film frame for several scenes. Did anyone at the mastering facility even watch this disc?
It is sad to compare The Greatest Story Ever Told to another film of the time period, The Ten Commandments. The recent Blu-Ray release of The Ten Commandments shows how a classic movie should be handled. It was restored to its original glory with very little noise reduction. It looks every bit as good as more recent movies. Sadly, The Greatest Story Ever Told is owned by a studio that is more interested in getting their catalog titles on the market to make a quick buck than give it a proper restoration.
“He Walks in Beauty” documentary (14:57, standard definition)
“The Filmmaker” documentary (27:38, standard definition)
Alternate Scene (2:29, standard definition)
Theatrical Trailer (3:32, high definition)