“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.
Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.
DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.
By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”
A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, the blandest of the lot is unquestionably King of Kings (1961). That film was much criticized upon its release as being too reverential. Lately, there has been a critical reevaluation, praising it as a worthwhile version. Don’t believe it for a second. Contemporary critics are perhaps a bit too awestruck with director Nicholas Ray and the prettified Jeffery Hunter. There is a reason Orson Welles sought to have his name removed as the film’s narrator: the movie lacks tension and is just too damned polite and impersonal. Even the usually dependable Robert Ryan, as John the Baptist, comes off merely as an actor quoting scripture. The eloquent but too academic cinematography and the unbiblical Barabbas subplot are the main attractions, despite the fact that said subplot hopelessly veers the film away from its self-proclaimed intent.
A few years later, director George Stevens hoped to produce the quintessential screen treatment of Jesus’ story. Stevens had previously made a pseudo-Christ film in his golden-hued myth Shane (1953), which is, perhaps, the most overrated Western to date. Not only did Stevens fail aesthetically with his big screen Jesus, he delivered one of the most abysmal flops in film history. Yet, for all its resounding awfulness, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) has points of interest, like a celluloid train wreck. It is a camp masterpiece of sorts, maddeningly bi-polar; and, despite its ultimate dullness, we are hard pressed to look away.
It opens with narration delivered so execrably that it would not even cut mustard in a local church passion play. A kitsch painting of star Max von Sydow‘s Sistine Chapel Savior introduces us to “The Greatest Story… Ever Told.” Following the obligatory bluish Viewmaster presentation of Luke’s Nativity (featuring Dorothy McGuire’s too old, too wooden Virgin Mary and Robert Loggia’s Joseph of the Waxy Beard), the film gets some much needed peppering in Claude Rains’ King Herod. Rains, in his last film, invests his usual expert sliminess in the role. Jose Ferrer plays Rains’ successor, Herod Antipas, with a cool tone that nicely counters Charlton Heston‘s John the Baptist. Heston’s John parallels the film itself in unevenness. We hear him first in woefully stiff voice over. John’s introduction to his cousin Jesus is replete with all the expected melodramatic pauses that we have come to expect. Surprisingly, John doesn’t know Jesus, but that’s true to the awkward source material. Fortunately, once Heston raises his Moses-like staff, his performance kicks in. In sharp contrast to Robert Ryan’s subdued performance of the same character in King of Kings, Heston plays the part of a chiseled ancient Baptist preacher (dressed like Johnny Weissmuller), who, like his modern counterparts, screams fiery sermons, bullies people into the baptismal tub, and has a propensity for telling those he disagrees with that they will burn in Hell. Heston’s fundamentalist condemnation of Ferrer’s Herod Jr. is so unexpected and eye-rolling, it gives the movie a desperately needed booster shot of interest.
Von Sydow is the embodiment of El Greco’s Christ, and although the script does not give him enough moments, there remains a sliver enough to conclude he is one the best celluloid Messiahs to date, despite being a blue-eyed Swede icon. As per the norm, the Jesus story has a bad ending and von Sydow has to get through it, but his performance is blessed with several moments to make your hair stand on end. Alas, the temptation scene is not one of them. Stevens has Christ climbing, struggling with pronounced fear, all the way up a familiar rock formation to face Donald Pleasance‘s tempting Beelzebub. Old Nick, forever snacking, offers the Nazarene a bite of jerky, but Jesus explains, with exasperation, that he is fasting. It is a well-played moment. However, the triptych of temptations that follows are a flat walk-through of printed quotes (though still better than King of Kings‘ handling of the scene). Pleasance’s recurring Satanic appearances, although an idiosyncratic device, are fatally contrived and happen at woefully opportune moments (seducing Judas into betrayal, inspiring the crowd to pick Barabbas, prompting Peter to deny Christ, etc).
Following Heston’s beheading, we are subjected to a series of numbingly risible vignettes: The Greatest Dead Spot Ever Told. Along with von Sydow, Michael Anderson (as an Aryan, baby-faced James), is saddled with dialogue worthy of Ed Wood: “What’s your name?” “James. What’s yours?” “Jesus.” ‘That’s a good name.” “Thank You.” Clearly, the plethora of writers were twirling pencils. Originally, the film was four hours. Understandably, Stevens had to make cuts—and this is one of the scenes he kept!
Justifiably, much has been made of Stevens’ All-Star Parade of cameos. Stevens’ gave a canned defense: in years to come, no one would notice. However, nearly fifty years later, these walk-ons are still blatantly obvious. Some have countered that Franco Zeffirelli likewise utilized established actors in his miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). However, Zeffirelli actually employed Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn, and James Mason as actors. In Stevens’ version, Ed Wynn, Pat Boone, Roddy McDowell, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Robert Blake, Sal Mineo, and Angela Lansbury are woefully out of place celebrities. The raspberry award has to go to John Wayne, in a Roman toga, infamously sputtering, “Surely, this man was the son of Gawd.” Understandably, it is a moment that has sent audiences howling ever since. Nearly matching the Duke in sheer embarrassment is Shelley Winters, who can be among the most ingratiating of actors. She does not disappoint expectations, yelling her way through her attention-craving role of a now-cured diseased woman, as if both Jesus and the audience are deaf.
Equally infamous is Stevens’ decision to use Glen Canyon, Pyramid Lake, Lake Moab, and Death Valley as shooting locations because “they look more like Israel than Israel.” Critics and Biblical literalists pitched a bitch, but since it is Sunday school storytelling, the complaints could be muted there. The boulders themselves look aptly muscular, validating Steven’s location decision. The real complaint lies in all that academic, hyper-professional framing (no doubt aided by uncredited co-director David Lean).
Jesus, his apostles, and crowd are tediously positioned like figurines on a velcro board, with white robes straight from the dry cleaners. These vignettes, featuring the Hare Krishna commune dozen, could be the ultimate cure for insomnia. However, just when we are about to give up the ghost to monotony, The Greatest Story Ever Told gets refreshingly offbeat with the raising of Lazarus. Naturally, this is the Big Kahuna of Jesus’ miracles (which compounds the uncomfortable fact that only one of the four canonical gospels even bothers to mention it). Jesus is rejected and chastised by that spitfire Martha for arriving too late to heal her now dead brother. Jesus weeps, walks off, looks up to God, prays feverishly, and transforms into a bona fide fanatic. It is an excellently acted moment and, for once, Jesus is a human desert prophet, rather than a celestial king on a pedastal.
Alfred Newman, not one of the great film composers, delivers a good score, complimenting von Sydow’s fringe moment… until Stevens’ screws it all up by slamming the musical brakes. The director’ throws a monkey wrench into his own scene by replacing Newman with the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Smartly, Stevens’ does not show us a closeup of the zombie. Rather, Lazarus is barely seen from a long distance, making one question whether or not the miracle is authentic or hallucination. Yet again, Stevens ruins a good setup by having Wynn, Van Heflin, and company sprint over to the local Roman shop, mimicking a non-musical barbershop quartet in proclaiming Jesus’ prowess in the miracle department.
The Greatest Story Ever Told gets a brief rebound before waddling into its saccharine Precious Moments finale. In the temple scene, Jesus finds his El Greco moment, and sends the Capitalists packing. Then, he outdoes himself with a torch-in-hand homily. Von Sydow’s savior transforms into a confused, diehard Gnostic, Baptist New Age preacher, ranting on and on about “The Light.” He riles the masses with such eccentric charisma, it is no wonder he is betrayed by David McCallum’s frightened and unsettling (but still under developed) Judas.
Stevens’ gives Judas a starling end. Rather than the customary hanging, the traitor throws himself into a raging flame. Perhaps the director and his fellow writers noted the two contradictory gospel accounts of Judas’ death and decided to do an in-between-version. Regardless of reason, it is a provocative decision that works.
The trial scene is well composed with reds beautifully and strategically placed. Alas, we do have to endure the (as usual) boring crucifixion scene, but it is not quite as torturous as the return of Handel and that damned kitschy painting.
The film itself proved a temporary beheading for the Biblical epic genre. Costing a staggering twenty million in 1965 dollars, The Greatest Story Ever Told has, to date, recouped eight million of that initial investment. Perhaps in the afterlife, George’s next project will utilize more cost effective, 21st century CGI.