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The Greatest Story Ever Told

review by Anthony D.

Studio: MGM

Running Time: 196 Minutes

Starring Max von Sydow

Written by George Stevens and Carl Sandburg

Directed by George Stevens

Retail Price: $26.98

Features: Restored Road Show Version, Two Documentaries, Deleted Scene, Photo Galleries, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.76:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Closed Captions, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

Sometimes a movie more than lives up to its title, sometimes it doesn't. "The Greatest Story Ever Told" falls into the latter category. Created at a time of movie palaces with ever so much larger-than-life screens, but before the overuse of Dolby Surround, when movie tickets were sometimes bought months in advance, when going to the movies was an actual event on the lines of going to a Broadway theater to see the latest hit musical. The event of going to the movies was actually worth the money invested: clean theaters, comfortable seating, silent patrons who paid attention to what was unspooling on THE BIG SCREEN. CinemaScope, VistaVision, Super Panavision, Cine-a-Rama, all widescreen formats to which movie goers flocked as the throngs flocked to that man from Nazareth in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," director George Stevens' towering epic discourse on the life of Christ. Using California's Death Valley as his pallette, Stevens paints a broad canvas of breath-taking beauty, often numbing the viewer with a pacing slow enough to be compared to watching that paint dry.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with "The Greatest Story Ever Told," as it follows the scriptures' Jesus Christ from humble birth in a lowly stable to miraculous resurrection from death, three days following his violent death on a cross. If there is such a thing as being too pious, then Stevens' film falls into that trap; trying to preserve the holiness of the story earnestly with a wide variety of actors the film imprisons the viewer within a wax museum with no visible means of escape."The Greatest Story Ever Told's" sum of parts are ultimately greater than the whole, creating a minor piece of cinema from a cinematic master.

Working from a screenplay by James Lee Barrett ("Shenandoah") and "Creative Associate" Carl Sandburg (yes, the poet), "The Greatest Story Ever Told" takes 196 minutes to unfold - - that is not a typo - - three hours and sixteen minutes, and though easy on the eyes, this is one of the few films that would probably benefit from a judicious editing down, rather than a restoration of its original Road Show length. The screenplay offers very little time for characterization, with the exception of Max von Sydow (then unknown in the United States, save for metropolitan areas lucky enough to have an art house cinema to have taken in his films for Ingmar Bergman), as all the speaking parts (something near to two hundred speaking roles) have been cast with "name" players easily recognizable to audiences in 1965 in cameo status, leaving precious time to create a believable character. This stunt casting reaches a cinematic nadir with the sonorous John Wayne centurion intoning, "Surely, this man was the son of God." One waits for the word "pilgrim" to follow, but in vain. In today's video market, however, this casting may not be as shameless as it was in 1965 - - how many of today's video buyers, most in the 24 - 34 year-old range, actually KNOW the legacy of film performances of Richard Conte, Roddy McDowall, David McCallum, Janet Margolin, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Sal Mineo, Van Heflin, Ed Wynn, Marian Seldes, Victor Buono, or even Claud Rains??? The names might be as familiar as future television stars Angela Lansbury, Mark Lenard, Telly Savalas, Michael Ansara, Russell Johnson, Pat Boone, Jamie Farr and Robert Blake, but this type of casting leads more to "Look! There's Angela Lansbury!" rather than "Wow! What a sultry villain that Herodias is." If the casting is meant to be for the ages, creating a work which will outlive its cast, THAT day has yet to come. The tale itself has lasted some two thousand years, will "The Greatest Story Ever Told" be a film whose time has finally come in the year 3965??? Created as it were for a specific time and place - - the film going world of 1965, and not the home theater experience of this new millennium, one wonders just who the audience is for this film, in this format, today.

Story wise, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" does not veer far from the familiar: Jesus is born, Magi seek him out offering gifts, Herod, the king of Judea lives in fear of the prophecies regarding the lowly birth of a "messiah" orders the slaughter of all new born male children, Jesus' parents (Mary and Joseph) take flight into Egypt. Time passes, roughly thirty years, and Jesus begins a mission of preaching to the poor, the sick and the lowly. He takes on twelve disciples to aid him spread "the Word of God" throughout the land. Jesus heals the sick with a touch. Jesus supports the unjustly chastised by turning the tables on the accusers with the simple sentence, "Let He who is among you without sin cast the first stone." Jesus' greatest miracle, which causes heavenly choirs to sing, is in raising a family friend from the dead. With this miraculous event, Jesus becomes a dangerous man in the eyes of the religious leaders, who plot against him. Because their laws cannot condemn a man to death, they look to the Roman Emperor to pronounce sentence on Jesus. They bribe a close associate of Jesus to turn him over to the proper authorities. The Roman Emporer, Pontius Pilate, sees no wrong in the works of Jesus, and sends him before the puppet ruler of the region, Herod, who is only interested in seeing the miracles this man can do. Herod returns Jesus to Pilate who, when faced with an angry mob, placates the throng by ordering Jesus to be nailed to a cross (historically speaking, however, Alexandrian crucifixions were carried out with nails, Roman crucifixions were done with rope) outside of Jerusalem's city limits. Following his death, Jesus is laid to rest in a stone-covered tomb. Three days later, when a woman follower goes to the tomb to pray, she finds that the stone is gone, and a strange man in white tells her that the man she is seeking has fulfilled the prophecy, and has risen from the dead. Everyone rejoices, well, not everyone: Judas, the betrayer has taken his own life, and a new religion is born as the risen Jesus commands his disciples to "go out into the world" retelling "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

When you pop in this dvd, please be sure that you have the largest viewing screen available because MGM has faithfully transferred "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in its original W-I-D-E-S-C-R-E-E-N G-L-O-R-Y with a whopping 2.76:1 aspect ratio! The opening credits are quite tiny, and obviously edge enhanced, but even on a 36 inch screen, the information is still quite a strain to read. It certainly doesn't help that the credits were designed with near-maroon typography on a mustard yellow background. What follows though, is an almost perfect rendering of the film itself, with very few signals that it is a library title from the middle 1960's. The initial reel has a few splotches, which miraculously disappear as the film progresses. The Technicolor® cinematography of Academy Award® nominated William C. Mellor is carefully preserved with its riches of colors intact. In a disappointment, though, the blacks are not nearly as rich as the other colors: the "Temptation" scene (Chapter 7) shows far too much grain in the darker areas of the frame. Alas, during the "Crucifixion" sequence (Chapter 30) , the grain becomes as evident as the picture itself. The image has no significant flaws, however, as flesh tones are accurately balanced to the lighting with contrast levels seeming to be right on the money. Whites are neither bleachy looking, nor do they glisten outside of their element. As previously stated, this film has a beautiful painterly quality to it which is evidenced constantly by Stevens' stunning use of location and actor placement. I suppose that my major gripe is that in this format, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" is not larger than life, as it would be in a theater.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround is a correct rendering of the film's original 6-Track stereo presentation (An alternate 5.1 surround option is in French). It won't necessarily give your subwoofer an "Independence Day"-like workout, but "The Greatest Story Ever Told" has a soundtrack which is all-encompassing, with Alfred Newman's somber score (with an assistant from the classical work of Handel) benefitting the surround channels. Some truly great effects can be found in the creepy sound manifestations during Chapter 21, the climax of the film's first half. Vague whispers, or wind instruments softly fill the rear channels as Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus - - sounds which be at home in an "old dark house" type of movie - - and as Jesus commands Lazarus to "Come Forth!" The orchestra takes up the keening full-throttle, thunder blasts and a heavenly choir shouts out a chorus of "Hallelujah!" Sound design at its best, never failing to bring a lump to the throat - - of Handel lovers everywhere! Otherwise the sound presentation is just what one would expect from a film of this dialogue, overwhelming use of music, with rare excursions into the bass' lowest registers.

The second disc's Still Gallery is sub-divided into nine separate sections: Original Production art, George Stevens During Pre-production, Production Camp at Glen Canyon Location, Behind the Scenes of the John the Baptist Sequence, Behind the Scenes of "Lilies of the Valley" Sequence, Pyramid Lake Location Photos, On-Location Photos, Behind the Scenes of the Lazarus' Tomb Sequence and Soundstage in Hollywood Sequence. Many of the photos represented are new, but there is a photo in the Soundstage area that shows not George Stevens directing, but uncredited David Lean (doing a friend a favor) whispering directions to Claude Rains as Herod. All of the photos offer a rare glimpse into the hidden workings on a film set.

Seriously lacking however, is the Costume Sketches. Here there are only four sketches..and not one of them of the leading character! A Deleted Scene is actually an alternate version, for foreign release, of the "Via Dolorosa" sequence, found on the film's disc as "Carrying the Cross" (Chapter 29), which hardly varies from the same scene during the film. The Theatrical Trailer is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) offering up quotes from the critics who liked the film before going into the film's narrative values. The trailer is almost a Reader's Digest® Condensed version of the film: all highlights and no substance; all to the strains of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

Not to be missed are the two documentaries exclusive to this presentation. Although billed on the back cover as an "Original Making-Of Featurette," the short "Filmmaker" Documentary is a keen look at the artist George Stevens at work on the film. On the other hand, He Walks in Beauty, is a reasonably-new Documentary on the film itself with interviews from several of the major players, including Max von Sydow, Shelly Winters, Charleton Heston and other Hollywood figures. Neither one of these features are fluff pieces, the latter is an invaluable addition for students (or fans) of George Stevens, though at times, "He Walks in Beauty" repeats some of the information from the 1965 documentary. Also, thanks to MGM for including a four-page insert with production notes and Chapter Guide.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is one of those films that is nearly impossible to decry. Often thought of as a film made in George Stevens' dotage, it is one of those rare films with heart. Steven's love of the film medium is evident in every frame of the film, and this was a director who didn't jump onto the widescreen bandwagon in the 1950's, preferring to work in the less than standard, but not quite square confines of the camera lens. "The Greatest Story Ever Told," in all its widescreen glory, is a carefully composed, beautifully realized film from a master filmmaker. Viewers with large monitors will certainly be happy to add this "Special Edition" to their libraries, however, all others are likely to be left wanting.

(3.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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