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The Greatest Story Ever Told

After finishing Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Pythons were asked what they would do next. Eric Idle responded "Jesus Christ: His Lust for Glory." This idea was pursued, but in the making of Life of Brian the troupe realized that there's really nothing to make fun of in Jesus; he's a rather dull main character. Hence the main problem with 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told, the story of Jesus, from birth to crucifixion and resurrection. George Stevens' reputation as a major director of minor films ( Swing Time, Gunga Din) and a minor director of major films (The Diary of Anne Frank) is proven here as, in being dutifully respectful to the Son of God, he makes the epic picture too stuffy and too long, lacking in the passion of Nicholas Ray's 1961 King of Kings or the pulp beauty of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 Ten Commandments. Max Von Sydow portrays Jesus, and he does a worthy job at one of the hardest roles an actor can be given. Many of the cast are good as well — people like Roddy McDowell and Telly Savalas are better than expected. Unfortunately, The Greatest Story Ever Told overflows with cameos — more cameos than reasons to watch the film — be they hammy (Claude Rains as King Herod, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist), inappropriate (John Wayne as a Centurion, Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, which puts a cog in the wheel as it invokes race in a film that refuses to address it), or just plain distracting (to name a few, Sal Mineo, Jose Ferrer, Donald Pleasance — as Satan no less — Shelley Winters, Dorothy Maguire, Robert Blake, Martin Landau, Victor Buono, Pat Boone and many, many more). Moments from the Bible are done well, with many of Jesus's sermons note-perfect, but it's a cold movie, and at 199 minutes, lifeless (reportedly there was a longer version that ran 260 minutes, though this is not noted anywhere on this special edition DVD; other versions have run as short as 140 minutes). The Apostles, as they often do in these films, become background characters to the man from Nazareth, who is enigmatic, pious, and unknowable — and he's the central figure of the tale. The Greatest Story Ever Told isn't that at all, but it is hardly the worst of Hollywood's Biblical adaptations that became popular in the wake of Ben-Hur. But epic films shouldn't feel like Sunday school, and in this case it's likely only to be preaching to the choir. Released as a two-disc set, MGM has done a nice job with the film, reportedly spending some $400,000 in restoration. The work shows: the widescreen transfer (2.76:1) is wonderful, although it does betray a few small defects of age. Audio has been re-mixed into 5.1 Dolby Digital — a sensible move as the film was originally released in six-track stereo, and the producers thoughtfully didn't try and make it into a modern mix with an overt focus on aural effects. A documentary is included on Disc Two, which features, among others, Heston, Sydow, Winters, Rouben Mamoulien, and Fred Zinneman; in it we learn that David Lean and Jean Negulesco did some uncredited shooting for Stevens on the film. Also included are an alternate version of the crucifixion sequence, a 1965 documentary, the theatrical trailer, costume-design drawings, and a still gallery. Keep-case.
—DSH


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