Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Studio Line: MGM

"A magnificent film, handled with reverence, artistic appreciation and admirable restraint" (New York Daily News), this glorious epic is an inspiring, grand scale recreation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from His humble birth and teachings to His crucifixion and ultimate Resurrection. Lavishly produced at a cost of $20 million -- an enormous amount for the time -- and honored with five 1965 Academy Award nominations, this exceptional motion picture is exquisitely beautiful. Now fully restored to its original theatrical brilliance with intermission and overture, it is truly The Greatest Story Every Told.

Director: George Stevens
Cast: Max von Sydow, Michael Anderson Jr., Carroll Baker, Ina Balin, Pat Boone, Victor Buono, Richard Conte, Joanna Dunham, Jose Ferrer, Van Heflin, Charlton Heston
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Special Visual Effects; Best Score-Alfred Newman. 1966.
DVD: Widescreen 2.76:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 32 chapters; rated G; 199 min.; $26.98; street date 3/6/01.
Supplements: First Time In 40 Years - Restored Roadshow Version Complete With Its Original 6-Track Stereo and a 65mm Hi-Definition Video Transfer; Branch New Documentary Including On-Camera Interviews With The Director And The Cast; Original "Making-Of" Featurette; Deleted Scene Includes Portions Of Handel's "Messiah" Cut From The Theatrical Version; Photo Gallery; Collectible Booklet; Original Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Alfred Newman | See all related products

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B/B

When you have the guts to call your movie The Greatest Story Ever Told, you’d better be able to back it up with the goods. Does this 1965 epic about the life of Jesus do so? No, not in my opinion, though I suppose many of the faithful will feel otherwise. Personally, I think my story about my prom night is much more interesting, but no one’s acquired the film rights to it yet.

In any case, TGSET provides a fairly thorough birth-to-death-to-rebirth telling of Christ’s life. Predictably, it starts with that night in the manger but it soon skips ahead to his adult years when he started to establish himself as a big deal. Why don’t we ever hear anything about his teenage period? What about Jesus’ prom? Maybe that story’d be better than mine!

Unfortunately, TGSET omits any mention of Jesus’ prom, first kegger or any related frivolity and heads straight for the big events. Sermon on the mount? Check! Resurrection of Lazarus? Check! Last supper? Check! (As an aside, who paid the check at the last supper - no one looked too eager to pick up that tab. I’m guessing Judas.)

At times, TGSET feels like little more than this kind of de facto “greatest hits” version of Christ’s life. Granted, some of that is inevitable in any movie that attempts to thoroughly depict his existence; we’re so familiar with so much of his work that it all seems boiled down to the usual suspects. However, some expansion of the material can occur, as Scorsese ably demonstrated in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a much better version of the tale.

TGSET also suffers from an overly-talky tone. Many of the big events are simply mentioned and not depicted. Sure, we get to see many of the highlights, but it seemed as though much of the time we simply heard participants tell us what Jesus did, and the man himself (played by Max Von Sydow) is left to look mopey and spout the usual “do unto others” advice. It gets a little old, especially since the movie seems to offer little other than the same generic material.

Although it appears that director George Stevens was deeply interested in this film, TGSET felt oddly impersonal and detached. It’s a bloated piece that tries to fit in everything; as a result, it does justice to little. Instead, the movie skips from event to event with alacrity, and very little feeling or passion emerges. I’ve heard many compliments about Von Sydow’s performance, but I don’t agree with them. He creates a noble presence but too little emotion emerges, and Jesus actually comes across as self-righteous and condescending. The scene in which he chastises Peter for judging someone who stole his coat comes across as pretty judgmental in itself. Von Sydow makes the character appear stiff and foreboding, and it’s frankly hard to understand why he was so attractive to so many.

Speaking of the cast, TGSET has received many criticisms over the years due to its absurd number of cameos. Every time you shake an olive branch, a star falls out and does a cameo. Look at the credits listed on the back of the DVD and you’ll find a whopping 29 actors plus a mention of the Inbal Dance Theater of Israel! Among many others, we find Sidney Poitier, Sal Mineo, Shelley Winters, and an infamous appearance from John Wayne. Stevens and others have defended these additions because in time, their jarring presence would diminish, and that’s partly true. There are a lot of performers in TGSET whose fame has faded in the last 35 plus years, so their bits have become less problematic.

Nonetheless, even for someone not yet born when TGSET appeared in 1965, I could easily detect a lot of them, and I found that their appearances quickly took me out of the story. I spent so much time going “hey, that’s (fill in the blank)” that it became hard to hard to concentrate on the story. If the cameos served any real purpose, they’d be easier to excuse, but there’s nothing done by any of the big names that couldn’t have been performed by an unknown; the stars add nothing to the proceedings except a distraction.

TGSET also featured some well-known actors in many of the larger supporting roles, with Charlton Heston’s John the Baptist being the most prominent of the bunch. Although Heston never has been much of an actor, he provides a surprisingly earnest fervor to the role. However, what was the deal with his costume and hair? He looked like a caveman! Perhaps this was historically correct, but it looked ridiculous; I felt as though he was preparing for his work in Planet of the Apes.

Not all of TGSET is negative, however, as the movie does offer some good points. For one, it’s quite well-staged for the most part, and the film features a lot of absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Stevens set up the shots nicely and made the most of the various mid-western vistas that filled in for the middle east. The splendor of the imagery creates a solid setting for this most famous of stories.

Alfred Newman’s majestic and haunting score also provides some of TGSET’s highlights. The music changes to fit the various moods of the film, and it helped make the often-detached presentation seem more involving and emotional. It also appears to have directly inspired the score by Gabriel Yared for 1998’s City of Angels; some parts of the music are tremendously similar.

The music and their connection to God are about the only similarities between the small and personal COA and the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, however, and frankly, I prefer the former film. TGSET simply tries to hard to be all things to all people, and it lacks the intimacy and warmth that are needed to bring its subject to life. Although the movie presents some examples of technical brilliance, a scattered focus and an excessively star-studded cast make it no better than mediocre in the end.

The DVD:

The Greatest Story Ever Told appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.76:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While TGSET provided a generally pleasing picture, it showed many inconsistencies that marred the presentation.

Sharpness usually looked fairly crisp and detailed. However, a number of scenes seemed moderately soft and fuzzy, particularly when the camera went for a wide shot. Most of the film seemed acceptably well-defined, though. Some shimmering occurred on occasion, but I saw no examples of jagged edges.

As one might expect from an older film, print flaws were a substantial concern throughout TGSET. Grain appeared on many occasions, as did speckles and grit. Nicks were a less frequent intrusion, but they occurred from time to time. Periodically, I saw a vaguely flickery quality to the image, and some odd flashed appeared during some scenes. I also detected an odd cut when Jesus is introduced to John; the movie seemed to skip at that time. Parts of TGSET passed without significant defects, but much of the film presented some combination of the problems related here.

Colors seemed somewhat pale and muted much of the time. I rarely saw any kinds of vibrant, bold hues, even when the material warranted them. As a whole, the colors remained passable but not much better than that, as they appeared clear but bland. Black levels seemed acceptably deep and dark, but shadow detail could be more problematic. Some low-light scene came across as heavy and thick, especially when “day for night” photography was used. Ultimately, flaws and all, The Greatest Story Ever Told seemed watchable, and a number of scenes looked quite strong; occasionally we’re treated to some truly gorgeous images. However, as a whole, the variety of concerns meant that the picture didn’t merit a grade higher than “C+”.

A more consistent presentation emerged from the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Greatest Story Ever Told. While the track also had some concerns, it seemed pretty strong for audio that accompanied a 36-year-old movie. The soundfield offered a fairly broad and expansive piece. In the front, a good mix of dialogue, effects and music emanated from the side channels. The audio seemed somewhat speaker-specific at times, but the directionality appeared accurate, and at times the sounds blended together adequately.

For the most part, the surrounds simply reinforced the forward spectrum; music was the primary focus of the rear speakers. However, the track actually offered some surround-specific information. On at least a couple of occasions, the rear channels provided aspects of the score that were theirs alone, and effects spread nicely to the surrounds as well. The general ambiance of the film seemed pretty solid, and I found the audio environment to appear generally good for an older film.

Audio quality was less consistent but it appeared acceptable for a film of this vintage. Speech tended to seem somewhat thin and could come across as a bit rough and edgy at times. However, the dialogue remained intelligible and distinct. Effects were similarly tinny and lackluster, but they showed no problems related to distortion and they portrayed the subjects with adequate accuracy. Not surprisingly, the score lacked significant dynamic range; a little bass crept into the track on occasion, but highs dominated the music and the rest of the audio. Still, the score seemed fairly clear and smooth, so I found it to appear acceptably well-reproduced. At times I detected mild background noise and hiss, most of which appeared to be attached to the dialogue stems. Ultimately, The Greatest Story Ever Told provided a relatively positive auditory experience.

In this two-DVD set we discover a smattering of supplemental materials, all of which appear on the second disc. First up is a recent documentary called “He Walks In Beauty”. This 41-minute and five-second program combines many stills and behind the scenes footage with a variety of interviews. The latter are presented both in “talking head” shots and as voice-overs, and we hear from actors like Von Sydow, Heston, and Michael Anderson Jr. plus other participants and interested observers like directors Rouben Mamoulian and Fred Zinnemann. The presentation of the interview subjects seems confusing; it’s a new documentary, but everyone looks relatively young, and both Mamoulian and Zinnemann are dead. However, their appearances all stem from interviews taped in 1982 and 1983; those clips are simply intercut for this recently-created piece.

As a whole, “HWIB” offered a fairly interesting look at the creation of the film, though I thought it spent too much time discussing director George Stevens and too little time on the movie itself. Much of the show seems to be heavily oriented toward praise of Stevens, which probably isn’t surprising considering the origins of the interview clips; they were filmed for George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, though they apparently weren’t used in that 1984 feature.

In any case, the documentary gave us enough compelling facts to make it warrant a viewing. We learn of the painstaking detail put into the production, and the various participants speak of the challenges they encountered along the way. I can’t say this was a frightfully stimulating piece, but it seemed entertaining enough.

Somewhat more effective was a second documentary called “The Filmaker” (the misspelling of “Filmmaker” is corrected on the DVD’s menu, but since “Filmaker” is what it reads in the movie’s title, that’s what I’m going to call it!) This 27-minute and 30-second piece was created concurrently with TGSET and it concentrates almost wholly on shots from the production; these are accompanied by narration that discusses the processes.

Some of the material can also be found during “He Walks In Beauty”, but I thought “The Filmaker” provided a more captivating view of the production. We see longer and clearer shots of the production, and I felt I received a stronger impression of the production. “The Filmaker” lacks the retrospective perspective found in “HWIB” but it makes up for this with immediacy. All in all, I enjoyed this look at the creative process and thought it was a fairly good documentary.

A few other minor extras round out the package. We get the film’s theatrical trailer plus a “Deleted Scene”. This clip shows an alternate version of the “Via Dolarossa” segment. It’s a very slightly alternate version, though; I could scarcely perceive any differences. Since TGSET originally existed as a longer cut - it lost a substantial amount of material after initial screenings - it would have been great to find that additional footage here; it’s a shame we only discover one mildly-different snippet.

In addition to a minor variety of interesting factoids in the DVD’s booklet, the second disc includes some still frame materials. We find four “Costume Sketches” in that area, and the “Still Gallery” covers nine different topics related to the production. In each section, we get between seven and 26 images for a total of 118 frames of material. None of these are terribly fascinating, but they provide a decent little look at the production.

The Greatest Story Ever Told isn’t the Greatest Movie Ever Made, and it contains quite a few problems; at times it represents the worst excesses of the epic genre. However, it does provide some well-executed segments, so the project has its merits. The DVD offers an inconsistent but generally good picture plus relatively positive sound and a few fairly interesting extras. Overall, the movie didn’t do much for me, but fans of Biblical epics may want to give it a whirl.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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