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Overall Rating

Awesome: 18.52%
Worth A Look: 22.22%
Pretty Bad: 11.11%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 15 user ratings

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Greatest Story Ever Told, The
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by Collin Souter

"They SO over-hyped this!"
3 stars

So, anyway, I’m at my sister’s house looking through her video collection for a good movie to watch, when I come across this title that just demands to be noticed: “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” “Well, well, well,” I thought. “Aren’t we full of ourselves. Ron Jeremy can only dream of being this cocky.” One has to admit, it takes a nicely polished brass pair to promote one’s self with such zeal. I mean, who’s to say what is the greatest story ever told and what pales in comparison? I know this sounds hypocritical coming from, well, a critic, but some declarations just cry out for debate.

I had to see what all the fuss was about. So, you know, I pop in the vid, and guess what? It’s THE BIBLE!!! Can you believe that? All the build-up, all the grandiosity, all the hoopla…only to be duped into watching yet another version of The Bible. Now, I understand many people look up to The Bible. Heck, some people even live their lives around it. Oh, yeah, I’ve seen ‘em. They go to a church every Sunday, talk in unison, sing songs and talk about some of the stuff that goes on in the book. It’s downright ritualistic, but then, so is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the story this movie tried to tell, but Jesus Christ, it’s not THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD!!!

First off, nothing funny ever happens. Have you ever seen anything funny happen in the story of Jesus Christ? No. Strike one. Are there just as many interesting female characters as male characters? No. Strike two. Not only does it have that going against it, but Dude dies at the end! Yeah, the main character, dead. Downer City! Yet, there it sits on the shelf—this self-proclaimed Citizen Kane of Stories—disguising itself as this wholly original and Holier Than Thou piece of art and entertainment. But, no, it’s yet another version of the story of Jesus Christ.

Okay, all kidding aside, the question remains: Is George Stevens’ film version really The Greatest Story Ever Told? Well, not the way it’s told here. This movie version came out in 1965, a time when Hollywood tried desperately to lure people out of their homes, away from their television sets and into the theaters with bigger and better screens, big-name stars and stories told on an epic scale. “Greatest Story” came out in Ultra Panavision 70mm with a time length of 260 minutes (4hrs, 20min.) and with star cameos galore. It cost $20 million to make, which today would be the equivalent of a “Minority Report” budget. It just begged to be noticed. (Note: I watched the 3hr and 19 minute version)

This grand scale ends up costing the film more than just a hefty sum of cash. It costs the movie its validity and emotional payoff. The 70mm cinematography looks great as a painting, but Stevens’ rarely goes in for a close-up when he needs to. Instead, we get shots of Jesus and his disciples expounding on the deepest of thoughts, but we never get to see the looks of wonder and confusion on their faces as though they just came up with these ideas. They stand far from us, distancing us from their discovery of wisdom.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” where we see Christ as a tormented soul, rather than a well-adjusted only child with big ideas. I admit, I haven’t seen too many other Bible epics. In Stevens’ film, Jesus’ words and philosophy just comes out of the blue without being put into any sort of context. One can almost feel the writers of the movie winking to the audience as if to say, “Look, you know the story. We’re just gonna cut to the chase if you don’t mind. Yeah, thought you wouldn’t.” In other words, Jesus Christ, the center of The Greatest Story Ever Told, has not exactly been given the deluxe treatment as far as character development goes.

Yet Max Von Sydow, who plays Jesus, does a great job with what he’s given (you know, like, words from The Bible and stuff). Sydow has always been one of my favorite actors. This guy has both “The Seventh Seal” and “Strange Brew” on his resume, so merely calling him cool doesn’t do him justice. He makes even the worst movie just a little bit better. At first, casting him as Jesus Christ seems a strange choice (we’ll get to strange casting choices in a minute), but when he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he makes us believe the words just came to him. In the last hour of the film, Stevens goes in for more close-ups of Sydow where we can finally see and feel the torment of his blessing as well as the beauty of his curse.

Others in the cast also do well. David McCallum gives a very good performance as Judas Iscariot, even if he does look as though he should be starring in a bad ‘80s 3-D movie. Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas also rises to the occasion playing his role with just the right amount of restraint (How boring it must have been to just be sitting on a throne all day without so much as a book to read while women do their Twyla Tharp interpretive dances all over the place).

But then, we have the Hollywood elite, who reportedly begged to be involved with the film in any way shape or form. We get Telly “Kojak” Sevalas as Pontius Pilate. Take a moment to let that sink in for a bit. He likes to read his lines off the script sitting on the table. Oh, it gets better. We also get Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, who resembles a cross between a damn dirty ape and Ringo Starr in “Caveman.” Gratuitous cameos also include Shelly Winters, Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, Jami Farr, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau and (brace yourself) Pat Boone.

But the Grand Poo-bah of “Greatest Story Ever Told” cameos is none other than The Duke himself, John Wayne as a Centurion supervising Jesus’ crucifixion. Now, he only has one line. According to a tidbit on the back of the video box, Wayne’s line “Truly, this man was the Son of God” had to be tried over and over again. Stevens directed Wayne to “give it more awe.” Wayne tried again, this time saying, “Awwww, truly, this man was the Son of God.”

With or without that funny story, the line gets a laugh when it shouldn’t. For all its good intentions and its appropriately lavish and beautiful production, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” falls short of its title simply out of vanity. When I see Pat Boone anywhere in an epic, I laugh. When Jesus’ disciples look as though they should be opening for Toto, it gets me giggling. Yet, when Von Sydow takes his moments and we stay with him, I wonder how I could be watching the same movie. After a while, the cameos turn unintentionally comedic and one has a hard time taking the whole thing seriously. As you can tell by the opening paragraphs of this review, I sure as hell couldn’t. No doubt my sister had this movie in her video collection for the same reason I have 1985’s “Fever Pitch,” starring Ryan O’Neal, in mine.

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originally posted: 07/10/02 13:50:28
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User Comments

4/06/15 Anne So disappointed - could have been memorable yet it drags and drags and drags... 2 stars
8/10/10 Robert Y. Forget what a negative critic says. This is an epic in glorious fashion. 5 stars
11/21/08 Jared Barton One of the greatest films ever on the life of Christ 5 stars
10/18/06 GC Van Sydow's performance excellent.... 4 stars
3/18/06 Rever timless and classy unlike Gibsons snuff film 5 stars
7/25/05 Eric Rollins Presumptious title doesn't hold up on film. 2 stars
4/19/05 tatum Shadowy, effective version of story, best until Gibson's Passion 4 stars
7/02/04 M. Brock A very poignant, touching film......timeless. 4 stars
4/14/04 David Fowler Not all of it works, but what does is near perfect. Von Sydow is the best Jesus on film 5 stars
7/11/02 Kilmore Trout It's like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with Christians! 2 stars
7/08/02 hENRY gINSBERG ohh YEAH jOHN WAYNE CAN ALways pint my wagon 4 stars
2/02/01 Campbell Max von Sydow rocks !!! He makes an awful movie watchable 4 stars
12/05/00 Rob Holding you better pray Jesus doesn't read your reviews 3 stars
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  02-Apr-1965 (U)

  02-Jul-1965 (G)

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