Directed By: George Stevens
Starring: Max von Sydow, Michael Anderson Jr., Charlton Heston
Trivia: Telly Savalas shaved his head bald for his role as Pontius Pilate. He kept his head shaved for the rest of his life
The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens’ 1965 epic on the life of Jesus Christ, stars Max von Sydow as Jesus, a man Christians believe was the son of God. The film touches on all the key moments of Jesus’ time on earth, from his birth in a Bethlehem manger and his encounter with John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) to his teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, and the various miracles he performed, like raising his good friend, Lazarus (Michael Tolan), from the dead. Finally, The Greatest Story Ever Told covers Jesus’ arrest, his trial at the hands of Pontius Pilate (Telly Savalas), his crucifixion, and, three days later, his resurrection.
That’s the story in a nutshell, but what’s truly great about The Greatest Story Ever Told is its gargantuan cast. In fact, the most fun you’ll have watching this movie will be trying to identify its cavalcade of stars, some in significant roles (Charlton Heston makes for a good John the Baptist), others popping on-screen for a few seconds (most notable is John Wayne as the Roman Centurion who, at the crucifixion, uttered “Truly, this man was the son of God”). The list of actors and actresses appearing in The Greatest Story Ever Told reads like a who’s-who of Hollywood in the 1960s: Jose Ferrer (as Herod Antipas), Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Donald Pleasance (as Satan, who else?), Sidney Poitier, and Shelley Winters (in the enviable role of “Woman who is healed”). Several cast members, aside from those listed above, went on to appear regularly on television, including Russell Johnson (aka the Professor in Gilligan’s Island), Mark Lenard (who played Spock’s father, Sarek, in a number of Star Trek episodes), and Jamie Farr (Corporal Max Klinger in the hit ‘70s sitcom, M*A*S*H), who, in the film, portrayed the apostle Thaddeus.
Unfortunately, not even the movie’s vast collection of stars can save it from the throes of mediocrity. Simply put, The Greatest Story Ever Told is extremely boring, and trudges along towards its inevitable conclusion at a snail’s pace. Many so-called dramatic scenes come up short, like the Last Supper or Jesus being tempted in the garden, and are instead tedious, with little or no effort put forth by director Stevens to make them cinematically engaging. It’s as if he felt the mere act of presenting biblical moments on film would be enough to both stir his audience’s emotions and arouse their piety. Clearly, he was wrong, and what we’re left with is a mind-numbingly pretentious movie that, quite often, buckles under the weight of its own self-importance.
The story of Jesus may be the greatest ever told, but it made for a pretty humdrum motion picture.