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“The Greatest Story Ever Told” Officially.

April 3, 2015


On Good Fridays, I tend to look out for this.  And it’s kind of big so it’s easy to spot. George Stevens is credited with ruining the idea of the biblical epic for an entire generation, until it was revived in a grislier form by Mel Gibson.

The cameo appearance of John Wayne is legendary.  The story goes that Wayne, playing the one-line centurion role delivered the sentence “Truly this was the Son of God” in less than convincing fashion and Stevens urged him on a second take to ‘give it awe’ – resulting in an unused version where Wayne declares “Awwww – truly this was the Son of God.”

The sheer number of big name cameos in this movie, makes it an odd film that feels both elongated and yet congested at one and the same time.

There’s a long-standing convention that the Simon of Cyrene who helped Christ carry his cross was in fact black.  Now Stevens isn’t just going to get any black actor to play this ninety second role.  Oh no, if he’s going to hire any black actor to do anything, he’s going to hire Sidney Poitier, now isn’t he?

This long but cramped film also contains performances by David McCallum as Judas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate and the incomparable Victor Buono as Sardonic Pharisee.  (Victor Buono had been outstandingly creepy in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane a couple of years earlier and would subsequently appear as my favorite TV Batman villain – the hapless bipolar Egyptologist King Tut, not to mention becoming chief bomb-worshipping mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

The film also features the very last screen performance by Claude Rains, one of the greatest screen actors of the 1930s and 40s.  And he actually makes you feel sorry for King Herod.  Actually makes you try to see things from Herod’s point of view.

Then there’s Donald Pleasance – playing not exactly against type as Vague Embodiment Of Absolute Evil.  He’s not called “Satan” in the film – he’s there to freak out Max Von Sydow in the desert.  Max Von Sydow, like his friend Jesus whom he’s playing, does not freak out easily though.  Max Von Sydow (who is still with us and showed up at the beginning of Star Wars VII) reinforces the representational convention of depicting a near eastern prophet as a long-haired Scandinavian.  Everything Von Sydow says is important.  And just in case you thought it wasn’t important, there’s a heavy handed biblical soundtrack by Alfred Newman to underscore each gospel verse.

Now George Stevens was a film-maker of note.  He had, after all, directed fifties classics like Shane and Giant.  The Greatest Story Ever Told is fascinating bit of hubris that suffers from inflated star power.  Watching this movie today (and some people must be watching this movie today), fifty years on, the life of Christ becomes over-punctuated by hot-cross bun smothered versions of “isn’t that…?” and “ooh look it’s….!”

Perhaps the real problem is a title that no movie could possibly live up to.   A lazy yet courageous film reviewer can type the one word “no” in response to it.  In fact, The Greatest Story Ever Told comes second in my all time list of movies that aren’t as good as their own titles.

After Killing Bono.

Ooh, ooh, I forgot the supreme cameo in the movie!  That’s my mate Jamie.  He’s from southern California and to this day he swears blind that as a result of delays to the start of filming The Greatest Story Ever Told, the baby they were going to use to play Jesus was too old by the start of the shoot.  And someone knew Jamie’s Ma.  And that person burst into George Stevens’ office and shouted “Lo – a child is born this day!”   So that outstretched hand you see at the very beginning of the film – the chubby baby fist that almost punches the air in its own assertion of divine nativity – that’s my mate Jamie’s arm.  And after a few drinks, he’s recreate the scene for you, even fifty years on, if you ask him nicely.


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