The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension. It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find. It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time. Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.
(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around. There’s a version that’s a little over two hours. There’s a version that’s close to four hours. Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)
Max von Sydow plays Jesus. On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air. On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance. The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it. von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma. When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile. When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else. He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.
The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces. The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM. Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting. Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene. Pat Boone is an angel. Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.
A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression. Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this. Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod. In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world. The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest. For the most part, he’s just a jerk. Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.
The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film. Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people. Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.
I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all. That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters! There’s John Wayne! There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!” That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.