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The Greatest Story Ever Told(1965)
The life of Jesus Christ.
For more about The Greatest Story Ever Told and the The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray release, see the The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 31, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Robert Loggia, Claude Rains, José Ferrer, Charlton Heston
Director: George Stevens (I)
» See full cast & crew
The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray Review
. . .but is this the greatest Jesus film ever made?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 31, 2011
It took George Stevens well over five years to bring his life of Jesus to the screen. Unfortunately, those five years were not kind to Biblical spectacles generally, and the sea change in the American temperament especially from 1960 to 1965 may have doomed this project before it ever unspooled before largely uncaring audiences. The 1950's had seen one mammoth religiously themed epic after another conquer the box office, but that may have initially been due to such then revolutionary techniques like widescreen visuals and multichannel soundtracks. That luster of innovation had worn off to a considerable degree by the time 1961's King of Kings appeared, and other early 60's epics like Sodom and Gomorrah seemed increasingly irrelevant in a world roiled by political assassinations, Far East wars and a general social malaise that seemed positively resistant to the usual balms religion, or even religious movies, offered. And so The Greatest Story Ever Told was in more ways than one a dinosaur lumbering through an alien landscape, a creature out of time (in both senses of that phrase), and a film which may simply have arrived too late on the scene to ever have had a chance with either critics or audiences. Sometimes hindsight is kind to such anomalies, and the supposedly clearer vision of some decades on from the premiere can help to smooth out the rough edges that contemporary viewers reacted to when the film first opened. In the case of The Greatest Story Ever Told, however, those rough edges are still completely apparent and the film unfortunately seems no better now than it has from virtually day one. This is no doubt one of the most visually sumptuous films depicting Christ's life ever captured on celluloid, but it is a vision devoid of any emotional import and it is further hobbled by being absolutely lethargic in pace (it seems almost incredible the original cut of the film ran an hour longer than its current 3 hours and 19-odd minutes). Stevens wanted to bring great works of art which had depicted various aspects of Jesus' life alive in this film, and that painterly approach means there's often some glorious sights to behold, but too often it's exactly like looking at a painting: we simply are viewing lifeless tableaux, artful assemblages of people and places that don't have an ounce of life in them.
Stevens was a larger than life man's man of a director, a big, blustering force of nature who seemed to have a particular affinity for getting great performances out of women. In his own way, he seems as unlikely a character to helm a life of Christ as I mentioned Nicholas Ray was in my recent review of King of Kings. But Stevens, like so many men who had weathered the twin assaults of the Great Depression and World War II, had a very deep and abiding religious fervor, and he was compelled by some inner urge to craft what he hoped would be the definitive film about Jesus. Somewhere along the way, something went horribly awry, and this large, lugubrious film turned into a cameo-laden example of Hollywood excess. This is especially sad as Stevens evidently wanted his production to be a "simple and straightforward" account of Jesus' life, at least according to one of the talking heads in the accompanying featurette included on this Blu-ray.
The Greatest Story Ever Told never finds its footing from either a filmic or especially a dramatic standpoint. With King of Kings, we have, despite that film's faults, a coherent dramatic arc and a vibrant sociopolitical context for the uprising of Christ and his followers. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, it's like we're turning pages in a glossy booklet which accompanies a museum installation. Everything is turgid, static, devoid of any impact other than the prettiness of certain shots and the gorgeously elegiac score of Alfred Newman (one whose string threnody borrows rather liberally from Samuel Barber). Even the music stumbles at the climax of both "Acts". (There's no Biblical pun intended with that term—Stevens himself invests his opening credits with a "Programme", yes with two "m"'s and an "e", which divides the life of Christ into "Acts"). Either Newman or Stevens made the boneheaded decision to lurch from original underscore to quotes from Handel's Messiah at the close of each section and it is the aural equivalent to the visual disruption of seeing any of a slew of famous stars trot by in sometimes seconds-long cameos: suddenly we are out of whatever tenuous "reality" has been created by the film, and we're squarely back into a vicarious mode where we're only too aware we're seeing something that is completely artificial.
While Stevens stuffed the supporting cast with everyone from Jose Ferrer to Claude Rains to Carroll Baker to Charlton Heston to Roddy McDowall to Ed Wynn (Ed Wynn!) to Telly Savalas to the infamous one line camp classic moment from John Wayne (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the film), he made a rather startlingly interesting choice to play Jesus. Max Von Sydow, who up to then was known only for his long association with Ingmar Bergman, was brought over to the United States to play what is arguably the most famous "role" ever written. There are both pluses and minuses to Von Sydow's performance. On the plus side are the actor's unbelievable expressive eyes, two incredibly limpid pools of tragedy, compassion and love. In fact Von Sydow's performance may well have been better as a silent depiction, so strong is the emotion emanating from his eyes. The other thing arguing for a silent approach is Von Sydow's then halting English, something which he tends to blurt out in two or three word bursts, with long, pregnant pauses in between. His accent is strangely not all that much of an issue, it's more a delivery approach that makes his Jesus seemingly a victim of some strange ancient speech impediment.
Stevens stages everything with a fair amount of panache, admirably making over the Southwest United States into Biblical locales of yore. There are some great aerial shots and nice tracking maneuvers utilized throughout the film, but it's more apparent than ever on Blu-ray how many matte shots were incorporated into the final film, as well as some none too convincing process shots. But even Stevens' typical visual strengths are dwarfed by the immensity of his 16 RPM approach to the subject matter. This is one of the most slowly moving epics in the history of film (and that's saying a lot), and that ponderous pace sucks whatever passing interest there may be in the pomp and pageantry on display. This may in fact be the "greatest story ever told," but this is one case where you definitely want to stick with the original book version.
The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray, Video Quality
It's never a good sign when a film comes with the infamous "best available elements" disclaimer, and unfortunately that's very much the case with The Greatest Story Ever Told on Blu-ray. An Ultra Panavision 70mm film would seem to be the perfect source material for a stunning high definition transfer, and while this AVC encoded 1080p presentation in 2.75:1 is most certainly a decided step up from the previous SD-DVD, it is still littered with defects and artifacts that keep it from being anywhere near reference quality. On the plus side, colors are often gorgeously saturated and usually very robust, and color timing appears accurate. Fine detail is good to very good in close-ups but diminishes to murkiness in midrange and far range shots, and in fact a lot of this film looks quite soft. While contrast is generally good, some of the darker scenes (and there are a lot of them in this film) suffer from moderate crush with an attendant lack of differentiation between foreground and background objects. The worst thing about this transfer, aside from damage to the master itself, is abundant flicker, registration differences and a lot of artifacting, including low grade noise, shimmer, aliasing and moiré. Grain is largely intact but in some of the opticals becomes dangerously close to noise levels (a good example is in the Crucifixion scene, where the cloudy background comes perilously close to completely devolving). At least we have an anamorphically enhanced transfer in the correct aspect ratio, so the opening and closing titles are at last at least relatively legible.
The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Much better is the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, especially with regard to one of Alfred Newman's crowning achievements as a film composer. This was one of Newman's favorite scores, and it's easy to see (hear?) why. This is haunting, lushly orchestrated music (Newman had a great team assisting him, including his usual co-hort Ken Darby, as well as Hugo Friedhofer, Fred Steiner, Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes), and it sounds magnificent with the brilliant fidelity of this lossless track. Dialogue for the most part sounds just fine, though it's quite evident (even more so than on the DVD) how much of this film was post-dubbed, with really noticeable differences in hall ambience for the looped work. There's consistent but never really very overwhelming immersion on the 5.1 track. This was obviously meant to be a reverential piece, and as such, aside from the score and some crowd scenes, there simply isn't that much opportunity to exploit a surround mix. There are one or two commanding bursts of LFE, notably the huge thunderclap that caps Jesus' ascent into Heaven in the crucifixion scene.
The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Greatest Story Ever Told Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The original theatrical trailer included on this Blu-ray has an unintentionally (I hope anyway) hilarious pull quote from the old Look Magazine which states "It may run for 40 years!" While I'm sure the reviewer probably meant the film would play forever, the quote can also be taken to mean that the film seems like it lasts that long, because surely it does. This is simply too reverential a treatment to ever muster anything approaching any dramatic immediacy, and that distance is even furthered by an endless array of cameos by a glut of Hollywood stars. Von Sydow is nothing if not interesting in his completely interior take on the character of Jesus, and Stevens offers a lot of painterly visions of Biblical times, places and personages. But it's an emotionally barren enterprise which fails mightily to ignite the religious fervor it so ardently attempts to attain.
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