193 of 199 people found the following review helpful
This film is often compared with the 1961 "King of Kings", and "Jesus of Nazareth", but this one is by far my favorite of the three, because of the exquisite beauty of it, and Max von Sydow's powerful portrayal of Jesus; his performance has a strength and boldness that is lacking in the other two, and therefore for me much more believable. Sydow was only known to fans of Ingmar Bergman's films at the time, having starred in the Swedish director's "The Seventh Seal" among others, and was a surprise choice to play Jesus, and a good one. He does a marvelous job, and I especially like the scene after Lazarus has died...it is brilliant, and very moving.
George Stevens' vision of the story has a stark majesty, and is taken at a leisurely pace; it is also quite verbal, with some of the major events in the gospels not pictured, but spoken of instead.
Filmed in Arizona and Utah, the cinematography by Loyal Griggs, who took over from William Mellor when Mellor passed away during filming, is glorious. There are scenes that have the composition and balance a fine painting, with extraordinary detail, often framed by doorways or windows, and it's a film I never tire of just looking at. Graphic artists should make a point to see this film, as there is much that can be learned from it. Alfred Newman also wrote a lovely score (with a little help from G. F. Handel) which adds to the aesthetic appeal of this film.
In the huge star-studded cast, some performances are truly memorable, like Claude Rains as a bitter and devious Herod, and Jose Ferrer excellent as his son Herod Antipas; Charlton Heston's ferocious, wild-man John the Baptist is impassioned and perhaps more like the actual Baptist than some of the tamer portrayals.
With its huge budget (over 20 million in 1965 dollars) it was a critical and commercial failure when it was released, but it has had a long life, and is being watched today while some successful films of the mid-'60s quite forgotten, and will continue to be appreciated by everyone who likes Bible epics. It was however, nominated for 4 Academy Awards: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score, losing out in all those categories to "Doctor Zhivago". There is "artistic license" taken with the story, but overall, it is a reverential, fairly accurate telling.
Total running time is 196 minutes.
56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
"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.
60 of 65 people found the following review helpful
This movie is one of the most beautifully filmed and the restoration to its original splendor attests to this. It is faithful to scripture and sets forth the message of Jesus in a classic style.
The film itself is generally well done, although it falls somewhat short in its sanitized depiction of the passion. However, most of the film is absorbing and the numerous "celebrity" cameos no longer (as time goes by) are the distraction they once were. John Wayne's "Truly this man was the Son of God" centurion is an exception. Claude Rains as Herod the Great, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas and (surprisingly) Ed Wynnn as the blind man healed by Jesus give powerful performances.
The movie is worthy of anyone's library and is a great companion to The Passion of the Christ.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2003
The Greatest Story Ever Told is a huge epic movie that boasts an impressive cast full of Hollywood notables. The movie follows the life of Jesus from his birth in a stable in Bethlehem to his teachings with his disciples all the way to his crucifixion and Resurrection. Because the film is so huge, many parts of the life of Jesus are just skipped over and talked about later by characters who saw it happen or heard about it. This is surprisingly effective to show how quickly Jesus' notoriety spread throughout the area. There are several very good scenes done with no sound except for Alfred Newman's fantastic score even though we know people in the background are screaming at Jesus as he walks by carrying the cross. One particularly effective scene involves Simon of Cyrene, played by Simon Poitier, helping Jesus carry the cross after he has fallen. As Jesus gets up, he grabs onto Simon's arm who helps him go on. It is a very short scene, but nonetheless very moving.
The cast for this movie could go on for pages. Max von Sydow gives an excellent performance as Jesus Christ, although he might not look like the usually accepted idea of Jesus. Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas also give very good performances as John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate. The film also stars David McCallum as Judas, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Dorothy McGuire as Mary, Martin Landau as Ciaphias, Donald Pleasence as Satan(although he is credited as the Dark Hermit), and many others. The film also stars Michael Anderson JR, Roddy McDowall, Victor Buono, Ed Wynn, Sal Mineo, Ina Balin, Carroll Baker, Van Heflin, Jamie Farr, and so many more. There are several very small cameos most notably John Wayne, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, and Claude Rains all of which are pretty good for how small they are. The Special Edition DVD offers the widescreen presentation, theatrical trailer, making of documentary, an altered scene during the crucifixion scene, still gallery, and a filmmaker's documentary. For an excellent look at the life of Jesus, if somewhat sanitized, check out The Greatest Story Ever Told!
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2001
"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is, in my opinion, one of the best, if not the best, Jesus films to come out of Hollywood. It may not be 100% accurate, but it certainly follows the Gospel story more closely than other films, such as "King of Kings".Max Von Sydow is very good as a quietly dignified Jesus of Nazareth, and Charlton Heston gives a great performance as John The Baptist. Indeed, Heston almost steals the show in the first half of the film. Telly Savalas is also very good,as a calculating and sinister Pontius Pilate.This film is often singled out for criticism by viewers and critics alike, due to all the cameos in the picture. And it does seem that every actor in Hollywood of this period appears in one role or another. But don`t let this ruin your enjoyment of the movie.The cameo thing was a common Hollywood ploy in epic, high budget films of the `60s. "How the West Was Won,"The Longest Day,"and certain other films of the time used the same gimmic, to draw in theater goers.Taken as a whole,'The Greastest Story Ever Told" is a very moving film on the life of Christ, with above average acting and a beautiful music score.Definately worth a look.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2005
The Greatest Story Ever Told is one of my favorite movies about Jesus. My favorite movie is Jesus of Nazareth but I like this movie too and I think Max Van Sydow and Charlton Heston were very good as Jesus and John the Baptist and I think the only flaw with this movie is with all of the cameos by popular Hollywood actors, some were good but others were badly miscast but that doesn't distract from what a wonderful movie this is and from the actors who really were right for this movie and gave brilliant performances. I had this movie on tape and I'm wanting to buy it on DVD and I recommend The Greatest Story Ever Told very greatly and I rate this 5 stars just for the excellent acting by Max Van Sydow and Charlton Heston!
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 1999
Although I prefer "Jesus of Nazareth" over all the Biblical films depicting the life of Christ, this film comes in at a close second ("King of Kings" is enjoyable although loses most of it's luster when compared to "Greatest"). Max Von Sydow (with those piercing blue eyes) turns in a notewrothy portrayal as Jesus and should have at least gotten an Oscar nod for his performance. Charlton Heston with his booming, commanding voice and rugged, masculine physique is the idyllic John the Baptist and should have been an Oscar contender in the supporting actor catagory, Dorothy McGuire is radiant as the Virgin Mary ( even if she does have a small role--which should not have been so relegated) and Jose Ferrer gives a wry, yet somewhat gruff portrayal of Herod Antipas while Claude Raines is a terrifying Herod the Great. Telly Savales is rather mediocre as Pontius Pilate, Angela Lansbury as his wife Claudia, should have had more than one line and John Wayne should never have been offered a part in the film. Despite the few minor flaws this is an enjoyable film and does not lack the essence of the Gosples.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2011
One of the most beautiful, and expensive, films made of the life of Christ. Hated by most critics in 1965, a box ofice disaster, cut from the original 260 minutes to 225 then to 199, and even cut down to 141 minutes. What we have on Blu-Ray is not the 225 minutes Roadshow version but what seems to be the only existing 199 minutes version. Which means thanks to the disgraceful policy of United Artists of dumping their movies, wherever - after initial release, director George Stevens' masterwork will never been seen in it's true glory or length, and seems lost forever. The Blu Ray edition is the best quality yet on home video and is a must for any true lover of the intelligent Hollywood epic. But, compared to "Ten Commandments", "The Bible, in the beginning..." and "King of Kings" (which were released at the same time on Blu Ray, and are all superb), the picture quality is very disappointing, but it's the best and only one we have. Unfortunately from the obvious deterioration visible on the print, it is doubtful if future generations will be able to see even this version, unless something is done very quickly to restore and save it, and that whould be a tragic loss, as it is not only George Stevens' most mature and heartfelt work as a director, but also composer Alfred Newman's finest score.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2004
"The Greatest Story Ever Told," George Stevens' epic film version of the story of Jesus Christ, was the first Biblical film I remember watching as a child, and it remains one of my favorites today. Stevens began work on this movie because he wanted "simply to do the story of Jesus," and he along with his cast and crew have treated the story with great reverence and respect. Max von Sydow turns in a brilliant performance as Jesus. And von Sydow is backed by an all-star cast which includes Charlton Heston, Van Heflin, Jose Ferrer, Roddy McDowall, David McCallum, Sal Mineo, Dorothy McGuire, Telly Savalas and many others. The story of Jesus Christ is indeed the "greatest story ever told," and this film is a glorious rendering of that story.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
In our time of fast cuts, limited character development, and two-word dialogue, this movie could not be made. It is visually beautiful and is a bit like watching moving paintings rather than moving pictures. I find the slow pace more exquisite and beautiful than long and boring. There are things that should be experienced in long phrases and bathed in time rather than crushed in a time compactor. The story of the life of Christ seems the most appropriate for this treatment.
I do find the huge vistas in the west rather strange because I have seen a great deal of footage from the Holy Land. Yes, this movie could not have been made in the historical setting, but the huge and coursing River Jordan in this movie is awfully different than the more-creek-than-River Jordan. But, setting the setting aside as dramatic license, I do find Max von Sydow's performance beautiful.
What is most interesting about this movie is that none of the action seems life-like, but it all seems so appropriate and right for the story it is telling. As I said, think of moving paintings and you will get a better idea of what to expect when you see this film.
Is it a great film? I think there are films about Jesus that are more appealing to me. But as von Sydow points out in one of the extras on the making of the movie, everyone has their own view of where Christ fits in and it is impossible to make a film that won't disagree with someone's settled view. I think this is a very good film that holds up well for what it intended to be. For my taste, by showing the miracles it clearly shows the miraculous nature of Jesus, but it doesn't seem to come down firmly enough on his Divinity. It seems to want to have it both ways, the final Christ in the Clouds notwithstanding. But that is my view.
One of the criticisms of the film in its time was that the many cameos by famous stars were distracting. In the documentary Stevens is quoted as saying that the day would come when no one would know the stars in those cameos and would just see the film. My children are that generation. I have to tell them who all these stars were. But they have a hard time with the pace of the film because they are used to much quicker cuts and a different kind of film language. I encourage them to just sit back and bathe in the beauty of the images and listen to the language and the spaces between the words as music.
In my view, it is a film very much worth watching and there is much that is masterful in this film, but I think it falls somewhat short of being a truly great film although Sydow gives a great performance as Jesus.