The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) -Movie Review
BY STAGING the story of Jesus against the vast topography of the American Southwest and mingling the mystical countenance of Max von Sydow, the Swedish actor, with a sea of familiar faces of Hollywood stars, the producer-director George Stevens has made what surely is the world's most conglomerate Biblical picture in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
There are things of supreme and solemn beauty in this almost four-hour-long color film, which opened last night at the Warner in a gala world premiere. There are scenes in which the grandeur of nature is brilliantly used to suggest the surge of the human spirit in waves of exaltation and awe.
There are glimpses of Mr. von Sydow, playing the role of Christ, that light the huge screen with revelation of the raptures and torments of a soul. And there are sections that develop sharp perceptions of the conflict between the evangelism of Jesus and the political powers of the day in Palestine.
But there are also annoying excursions into large-screen theatricality that contort some of the events in the career of Jesus into encounters that look extravagant and gross. There are too many scenes in which the preachings of Jesus to the disciples and to the multitudes are so drawn-out and repetitious that they become monotonous.
Distinctions as to the authorizations of the political powers are not too clearly made. One unfamiliar with history might not gather that the Sanhedrin—or the assembly of high priests—is the ecclesiastical court of the Jews. And most distracting are the frequent pop-ups of familiar faces in so-called cameo roles, jarring the illusion of the moment with the diversion of the mind to the business of discovery.
Most shattering and distasteful of these intrusions are the appearances of Carroll Baker and John Wayne in the deeply solemn and generally fitting enactment of the scene of Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. Suddenly, at a most affecting moment, the plump-cheeked Miss Baker appears as a woman of the streets (Veronica) to wipe the sweat from Jesus' face. And right at a point of piercing anguish, up pops the brawny Mr. Wayne in the costume of a Roman centurion. Inevitably, viewers whisper, "That's John Wayne!"
This sort of conscious intermingling of theatrical personalities with sincere dramatic intentions and occasional stunning effects is the ultimate evidence of distortion in Mr. Stevens's clearly calculated way of handling his familiar material hyperbolically.
There is very little simple realism in this massively scenic Passion Play. Virtually everything is given huge proportions on the Ultra Panavision 70 screen. From the tiny hand of the infant Christ-child that fills the screen in an opening scene to a vast panorama of Death Valley in California that is meant to represent both the outlook and feelings of Jesus emerging from a period of temptation in Galilee, the concept and style of illustration are on an exalted level and scale.
Thus the scene of the Wise Men being guided by the star to Bethlehem is a brilliantly blue-white illustration that resembles a handsome Christmas card. The period of Jesus' temptation — his trial in the wilderness—is symbolized by a long and painful sequence of his climbing a rocky mountainside that becomes more precipitous and difficult as he ascends.
On the way up, he stops in the cave of a hermit—a devious rascal, played by Donald Pleasence—who makes him an ambiguous offer of being master of the world. The mouth of the cave is virtually filled by the image of an outsized full moon, which bears on its face the seeming profiles of continents on the earth.
These are pronounced examples of Mr. Stevens's theatricality. His use of exaggeration is more appropriate in other scenes. For instance, a scene of the disciples gathered with Jesus beside the Jordan at dusk, there to recite the Lord's Prayer, is staged at Glen Canyon in Utah—an awesome place, fringed by massive boulders, quite foreign from ancient Palestine. But this kind of arbitrary staging imparts a strong cathedral quality to what is a basically esthetic and reverential scene.
In these scenes—and, indeed, all through the picture—Mr. von Sydow moves with solemn dignity, developing an image and impression of an inspired, devout, benevolent man. But so firm and restrained is his performance (as distinct from others and from the ambience of some scenes) that one senses Mr. Stevens may be working toward a presentation of the historical Jesus rather than the divine Jesus, until the episode of raising Lazarus from the dead.
So chary is Mr. Stevens of showing the working of miracles that he has only two in the picture—until the Lazarus episode. These are the curing of the lame man (called Uriah, played by Sal Mineo) and the giving of sight to the blind man (called Old Aram, played by Ed Wynn.) Both may be regarded as not uncommon medical phenomena.
Even in the episode of Lazarus, it appears until the end that the miracle may be a hallucination of the on-looking crowd. But then the miracle is confirmed by the emergence of Lazarus from the tomb and the thundering from the stereophonic sound-track of Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus—which, incidentally, is repeated with the indicated Resurrection of Jesus at the end.
However, the earthly aspect of Jesus is most interestingly dramatized in the mounting anxiety his preachings and his captivation of the excitement of the crowds causes the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and consequently, King Herod and the high priests.
Although Mr. Stevens's juxtaposition of the ministrations of Jesus against the awareness and anxiety of the political leaders is slow and considerably involved with the rebelliousness caused by John the Baptist, this is the crux of the drama in the film. And it is upon one's absorption in this drama that one's appreciation will largely depend. For there are no sensual come-ons common in other Biblical films.
Fortunately, the political figures are played exceptionally well. Telly Savalas makes a hard-boiled Pontius Pilate, the most realistic character in the film. José Ferrer is excellent as Herod, materialistic and sinuous. Charlton Heston's John the Baptist is a bit too much of a muscular, Tarzan type. David McCallum's Judas Iscariot oozes a chilling treachery, but it is not made clear precisely why he does his fateful deed.
Many others—too many to mention — play their roles variously. Sidney Poitier's Simon of Cyrene, the African Jew who helps carry the cross, is the only Negro conspicuous in the picture and seems a last-minute symbolization of racial brotherhood.
Alfred Newman's music is conventional and generally tasteful, except when it bears down hard on the "Hallelujah" chorus and other triumphant bursts.
At the end, one may feel that almost four hours is much too long a time to devote to a far-from complete dramatization of the last three years of Jesus' life. But Mr. Stevens has done it in a generous and often stunning style. And the quality of his reverence should captivate the piously devout.
By Bosley Crowther