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a majestic, beautifully filmed epic
on July 15, 2004
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.