Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

After watching The Greatest Story Ever Told I can understand viewers’ complaints that 1950s and 60s biblical epics are often handsomely-made but dramatical inert. The film is so languorous, so fossilized, it might as well have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It has a massive cast of famous actors depicting the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, but these actors might as well be lifeless mannequins for all they’re given to do. The cast essentially stands around in a series of stylized tableaus that beguile the eye with their similarity to religious iconography, but infuse the narrative with zero drama. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a gorgeous film and a curious historical production, but there’s a reason no one fondly recalls it as one of the great or even good films about Jesus of Nazareth: it’s a bore.

The film stars Max von Sydow as Jesus and depicts the entirety of the Gospel narrative, from his birth to his death to his resurrection. Director George Stevens, known for Giant and Shane, shot The Greatest Story Ever Told in Monument Valley, which lends it an unsettling visual tone that’s lacking in most Jesus movies. The film is a CinemaScope epic and looks undeniably great. It’d likely be a treat to view projected on a giant screen, allowing for the full scope of the film’s exterior cinematography. As well, Stevens creatively blocks and frames the entire film. Seemingly inspired by medieval and renaissance artwork, he positions the actors in the middle of the frame on a flat axis, shrinking depth of field and essentially blending the actors with the environments they inhabit. During the Last Supper scene, for instance, he has all the actors sit on one side of the table facing the camera, capturing a look similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Few biblical epics take as deliberate care replicating styles from Christian artwork of the past as The Greatest Story Ever Told. It sometimes makes it seem more art film than Hollywood epic. Sadly, Stevens’ visual inventiveness is the only thing about the film worth recommending.

The Greatest Story Ever Told dies on its lack of drama. Every scene is robbed of its emotional stakes as the actors seem to embody the still nature of the cinematography. They never submit to the deep emotions of the moment. It’s as if the filmmakers thought that because they were telling the best known story in human civilization, they need not try to invest the characters with motivations or allow for dramatic tension. There’s no energy to the film—it’s all stoic flatness. Every scene seems a tired inevitability. In the Gospels, Jesus asks for his burden to be taken away before submitting to the Roman soldiers. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus seems dispassionately accepting of his eventual fate from the moment he’s born.

Max von Sydow, the great Swedish actor, plays Jesus as something more than human, but sadly less than divine. He never embraces Jesus’ humanity, but neither does he convince the viewer of his otherworldliness. He only appears oddly tired. In the scene in the Temple where Jesus drives out the moneychangers and vendors, Sydow’s anger is nothing more than a mimicry of rage. It doesn’t help that Stevens keeps the camera dispassionately distant. Based off this film, you’d think he were allergic to close-ups. We’re never allowed into Jesus’ psychological world. He’s an inscrutable human protagonist, and not divinely so.

The Greatest Story Ever Told is devoid of passion. For a film so focused on the Passion of Jesus Christ, this is a fatal flaw, if an ironic one. The endless parade of celebrity cameos—John Wayne appears as the centurion at Jesus’ Crucifixion and Sidney Poitier is Simon of Cyrene, for example—don’t help either, as they constantly distract from the film’s ancient setting. Why stylize the film as historical Christian artwork and then have modern celebrities constantly break the illusion like glaring anachronisms? Only Charlton Heston’s feisty rendition of John the Baptist invests the film with any semblance of power. As he demonstrated in Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, he understood that being historically faithful and religiously provocative meant amplifying the emotion, not burying it.

The story of Jesus of Nazareth may be the greatest story ever told, but George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told is far, far from the greatest film to ever tell it.

3 out of 10

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965, USA)

Directed by George Stevens; written by James Lee Barrett and George Stevens; starring Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Martin Landau, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, Michael Anderson Jr., Roddy McDowall, Joanna Dunham, Joseph Schildkraut, and Ed Wynn.