The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - MGM Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (4th June 2011).
The Film

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” has to be one of the most optimistic film titles to ever see the light of a theater marquee; perhaps the optimism was intentional. After hitting it out the park with not just one, or two, but three exceptional films in a row – two terrific westerns, “Shane” (1953) and “Giant” (1956), and the somber, affecting drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) – it probably seemed unimaginable to director/producer/writer George Stevens that his life-long wish to adapt the epic tale of Jesus Christ onto celluloid would end with anything other than another huge success. With two Oscar nominations as director flanking another for “Giant” which he actually won, and over a dozen other nominations or wins for others under his guidance on those films, Stevens had no reason to think that, when he started working on his passion project, it would be such a colossal failure that it would essentially end his career. And yet, that’s exactly what happened; so dejected and outcast from Hollywood was Stevens that he directed only one more film in the years following the grand-scale misfire that was “The Greatest Story Ever Told” before he died in 1975.

Loosely based on a book of the same name by Fulton Oursler, with a script by Stevens and James Lee Barrett (and assistance from poet Carl Sandburg) that has a sometimes fatal adherence to the “historical accounts” as written in the Good Book, “Told” tells the lengthy tale of birth-death-and-rebirth that was the life of Jesus (Max von Sydow). The film charts his life – the salient points anyway – from the Nativity, through the Sermon on the Mount, many of the miracles he supposedly performed, and finally, the crucifixion and resurrection. Stevens’ epically mounted production, shot in large-format Ultra Panavision 70 with the help of two other master directors Sir David Lean (helming a prologue with King Herod, played by Claude Rains in his final screen appearance) and Jean Negulesco (who captured the nativity), is so long that its creator divided it into, literally, two parts with an intermission for theatrical exhibition. MGM’s Blu-ray release presents the film in a 199-minute “Roadshow Version”, complete with Overture, Intermission, and exit music intact. But so grand was Stevens’ vision that the “Roadshow” cut is still an hour shorter than the original premiere version, which reportedly ran well over four hours.

Stevens spent over five years trying to bring his envisioned opus to fruition. This included two years of writing and rewriting (at one point he even considered collaborating with Ray Bradbury) culminating in an unused draft with Ivan Moffett before the final script with Barrett, for which Stevens’ received his only screenwriting credit in his entire career. Nearly a year of troubled principal photography, worsened by both Stevens’ insistence to shoot in the American South West – areas of which experienced record-breaking snowfall during the shoot – and mostly at the heralded Magic Hour, to capture a visual majesty that matched the director’s holy script. He commissioned the construction of forty-seven sets, some of which were utilized on the Culver City Backlot, while others were relocated to such impossibly impressive locales as Pyramid Lake, Lake Moab in Utah, and California’s scorched Death Valley. The legend goes that Stevens’ storyboards were actually massive oil paintings by artist Andre Girard, and that he spent almost $3 million before even a single frame of film passed through the cameras. It all smacks of a Kubrickian-level perfectionism, but a perfectionism that rarely is translated to screen.

Well, no, it’s translated to the screen – just sporadically and never really all that well. The film is undoubtedly an incredibly well shot thing, and the work by cinematographers William C. Mellor and, after Mellor suffered a heart attack on set, Loyal Griggs is wonderful. Some of the imagery, framed in all its 65mm large-format glory, is gorgeous, and often meticulously framed. Stevens’ recreation of The Last Supper is beautiful from an artistic perspective in its lighting and camera positioning. It’s just… obviously North American (and not technically accurate Middle Eastern) locations, staid script, stilted dialogue, purposefully statuesque performance from Max von Sydow, and overly serious tone overshadows the beauty of the images in a bafflingly unpleasant way. The cinematography is excellent, the production design is magnificent and the production exudes an opulence befitting an epic. But, ignoring the sometimes-glaring use of locations – which at least look nice, if not believable in a Biblical context – the somber nature of the film, combined with the long runtime, is the biggest hurdle in getting through “Told”. (Frankly, it was a Herculean task for me to even get through the pre-intermission portion of the film.) Mostly Stevens’ film just boils down to an uninteresting, boring slog that feels twice as long as it is. I like long films, but long films that feature scripts with things like plot and actors who actually have a heartbeat.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” came to theaters in 1965, where it was largely met with a tepid critical reception (although some said it as a thing of beauty and triumph; perhaps certain groups still will feel that way). The response from audiences was especially languid. Part of the problem, and the main reason that the astronomically-budgeted-for-the-1960's production, which cost $20 million (that’s almost $150 million in today’s dollars), failed to make even half that in box office receipts is simple. The biblical epic, once a staple of Old Hollywood much like the equally then-ill Western, had started to fall out of favor with the general public. Films like “Quo Vadis” (1951), “The Robe” (1953), Cecil B. Demille’s 1956 update of “The Ten Commandments” (1956), and the unbeatable “Ben-Hur” (1959) more-than-competently filled in many of the two Testaments’ side stories and provided more than enough entertainment for the religiously inclined moviegoer. Even the Son of God got his story adapted to screen through the lens of Nicholas Ray with “The King of Kings” (1961). (Note Ray beat Stevens to the punch, as a filmmaker finally tackling the life of Jesus, by four years.) So, by the time Stevens’ film screened, audiences and critics had already seen all that need be seen concerning religious allegories. Consider this: when Stevens started production on “The Greatest Story Ever Told” the biblical epic was at its height of popularity but, when finally released, his film’s supposedly as-yet-untold story of Christ had already been eclipsed by a mediocre-if-better-than-“Told” picture starring Jeffrey “Captain Christopher Pike” Hunter as Jesus. Basically, Stevens’ film was too little (or, really, too much, considering the pace and runtime) too late. Along with John Huston’s “The Bible: In the Beginning…” (1966), Stevens’ vain “The Greatest Story Ever Told” delivered the final blow that would bring an end to the religious epic in Hollywood.

Another, bigger, problem with “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, and likely an even a better explanation as to why Stevens’ film failed, is that frankly it isn’t very good. Why it isn’t good is easy to explain: the script feels like it attempts to cram every word of the biblical account of Jesus into its pages, which is a case of being detrimentally to faithful to the source material for the sake of simply being faithful. Even more troubling is that Stevens then attempted to film all of it, but sometimes is left to simply having his characters describe the events of a particular miracle or other important event rather than show it. This is a total failure of one of the first lessons in Screenwriting 101 – show; don’t tell. (One assumes that these scenes in question were probably shown in the original 260-minute premiere version, but cut for the Roadshow and so all that remains now are these odd references to material the viewer never sees). Casting is an issue as well. At the time of its release critics noted one of the biggest flaws in “Told” as the pointless parade of cinema stars. Some of the impact from this most damning fault has lessened as the meaning of a certain names has faded with history, which was apparently Stevens’ intention, but the cameo and supporting cast of dozens – including Pat Boone as an angel, Angela Landsbury, Sal Mineo, Martin Landau, David McCallum as Judas Iscariot, Roddy McDowall, Sidney Poitier, José Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Ed Wynn, Shelley Winters, and even, as frequently mentioned, a horribly, laughably awkward John Wayne who gives one of the least convincing line readings in the history of cinema – still mostly do nothing but distract. Stevens claimed that the shock of his supporting and “cameo” cast would lessen with time and it has lessened in some regards, but only to considerably worsen in others. The director’s claim is especially irrelevant of Wayne who was then, and will forever be, a perennial star as long as people continue to watch movies. It’s also glaringly false of many of the true, non-cameo, members of the supporting cast whose star power has risen considerably in the public conscience, since the film’s release, some to the levels of icon. Telly Savalas gives what is probably his best screen performance as Pontius Pilate, but he will forever and always be the iconic Kojak. I, and surely many others, can’t look at him, even in good screen performances as he gives here, without seeing a Fedora and lollipop, and hearing “Who loves ya baby” in my head (a similar problem occurs for me with his turn as Blofeld in the George Lazenby Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), but I digress).

Other players are commendable, if oddly cast, and oddly directed. Max von Sydow’s casting might have made sense in 1965, when the Swedish actor was only known in the art house circuit via his long collaboration with Igmar Bergman. Von Sydow made his English-language, American debut as Jesus – a fact that caused a bit of controversy during the original release – and it was a conscious decision by Stevens to cast the relatively unknown actor so that movie audiences wouldn’t have any preconceived notions. This is problematic for two reasons: it is impossible, much like Savalas, to separate von Sydow from some of his other roles now (either his iconic, like Father Merrin in Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), or his absurd: Ming the Merciless from “Flash Gordon” (1980)) so the intention is no longer relevant. Not only that but seeing Stevens’ direction of this particular actor – he wanted von Sydow and Jesus to be almost unrelentingly stoic, as to show a goodly God-like presence when amongst the other characters and cast. The results are questionable at best; von Sydow does a good job with the direction he’s been given, but is that the correct interpretation of Christ? Even if it’s “correct”, it certainly doesn’t play well on screen. He appears too removed, almost soulless and completely devoid of any human emotion or likeable qualities. Put up against an emotionally charged Charlton Heston, who plays John the Baptist, von Sydow looks cold and calculating; his Jesus arrogant and egotistical even, as though to connect with those around him and engage the screen is somehow beneath him. Again, this isn’t so much a fault of the actor, but how the director wanted the actor to act.

You get the sense while watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told” that Stevens and most everyone involved thought that there were making the greatest movie ever made, completely oblivious to the fact that in reality that were a part of something that decidedly wasn’t even close to being worthy of that title. Stevens’ photography is beautifully artistic, and the production certainly has an epic feel and scale, but everything moves at such an overlong, glacially slow, and too-reverent pace with too much stately seriousness that the film will have everyone but the most patient and faithful asleep in no time. Then again, this review comes from someone that labels himself a non-practicing Christian, who has little use for organized religion. My opinion is basically worthless on these matters to certain groups (after all, I like “Glee” (2009-Present), so I’m a heathen.) But realize too that this review also comes from a Journalism major who has more credits in Religious Studies and Mythology than he does in his field of study. I may not subscribe to any particular faith, but the myths of – and sociological aspects surrounding – religion fascinate me. I think the fact that “The Greatest Story Ever Told” failed to hold my attention says more about its shoddy construction than it does about my biases and beliefs.

And one last thing – if my words hold little water, and I’m sure they do, consider: Stevens’ film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but every single one was in a secondary awards category (and largely technical): Cinematography, Music, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Special Visual Effects. Stevens himself received no recognition for his direction nor his writing, despite previously getting nods for his other, good, films. (Rightfully so, for as nice as the film looks, a director’s job is also to get good performances out of a thoughtfully-compiled cast, a task which Stevens fails in this instance). And despite the gargantuan cast, not a single person was tipped for an acting award. Also, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” didn’t win a thing in any of the categories it was nominated in. The film, really, isn’t worth it.

Video

Stevens and his cinematographers shot “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in super-widescreen Ultra Panavision 70, a 65mm film process that used large-format film mated with anamorphic lenses to yield a vast, panoramic aspect ratio of 2.75:1 (the black bars on the top and bottom of the frame are appropriately quite large to accommodate this uniquely sized image). There have only been a few Ultra Panavision films released on Blu-ray – with arguably the most notable, the magnificent “Ben-Hur”, not even out yet and planned to hit high definition from Warner later this year – but most of them look, as they should, great. Regrettably “Told”, although also shot in one of the grandest cinematic processes ever conceived, does not look like its beautiful brethren, mostly because of the condition of the source elements.

The 1080p 24/fps high definition AVC/MPEG-4 encoded presentation begins with a note about being minted from the “best available” materials, which is never a good sign. Indeed, I don’t doubt that these were the best available elements in 2001 when this master was likely created, and that at the time, with then-current technology, the results – now transferred to this Blu-ray without additional care – were the best that MGM could do. On DVD, via much lower resolution and the smaller screens of yesteryear, it probably looked pretty decent. That doesn’t mean that this is good looking, or even justifiably mediocre looking for Blu-ray (it is some of the time but, hardy, all of it). To be blunt, MGM should be ashamed that they let “Told” out in its current state. They should have remastered or, really, fully restored the film for its HD debut, because frankly this disc just looks more bad than good. The print is in poor shape and right from the outset viewers are pelted with persistent scratches, flecks, and instances of dirt and other debris. An irregularly noticeable gate-weave (or image wobble) is more severe towards the beginning of the film – as are, in truth, many of the transfer’s most foul deficiencies. Drastic variations in color, contrast, detail, and the master’s frequently unattractive digital phoniness only occasionally lessen, but do not completely disappear over the roughly three-and-a-half hour runtime; some of the worst looking moments fall towards the end.

I’m sure that this is sharper than the DVD, and that the Blu-ray brings more detail to light than ever before. Although, note, I don’t own a copy to compare and this is just a guess based on the fact that sometimes the film looks acceptable to even shoulder-shruggingingly decent. I’m just not sure that the increase in resolution and clarity is always a good thing with the current source. Inconsistencies are more glaring than not: plenty of medium and, shockingly, most wide shots are soft and fuzzily indistinct. Ugly edge halos surround some objects in some scenes, while no halos are to be seen around objects in others. Grain is apparent – sometimes thick and stubbornly obtrusive, other times less bothersome. For much of the film, the transfer exhibits a heavy dose of noise, which on top of the grain, makes for a rough, unnaturally harsh appearance. Digital manipulation rears its unfortunate and ugly head in a few scenes, most distastefully during Christ’s crucifixion; in the edge-enhanced, overly smoothed, yet noisy reveal, a low-lit Von Sydow looks either like a CGI creation or a heavily photo shopped, plasticized abomination. The source isn’t the only flaw: compression and the overall quality of the encode is problematic, with artifacts, moiré, intermittent aliasing, banding and color fringing all appearing at least a couple of times on separate occasions in both halves of the film.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t moments – in fact, reasonably long stretches – where “The Greatest Story Ever Told” at least looks passable or even at times strong, and with the exception of a few scenes, nothing will even be mistaken for standard definition. In the films best scenes – when the noise and edge-enhanced grain are at a minimum, and Stevens’ chiaroscuro imagery is in full effect – the image is able to perfectly showcase its artfully framed beauty. In certain daylight sequences colors are lush and allowed to reveal some of the production’s opulence. In many close-ups and some medium shots the high-def format actually provides a better appreciation of intricate makeup, costume, and production design details. The problem is, the good-looking moments come few and far between over the 3 hours and 20 minutes, and are spaced out between lots and lots of awfulness. It’s such a shame that this gorgeously photographed film hasn’t been treated better. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” deserves to look positively splendid on Blu-ray; that it doesn’t should anger the films few fans, but I fear they will probably appreciate the slight improvements over the decade-old DVD, more so than take issue with the discs numerous and largely unsatisfying flaws.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) mix is considerably better and more consistent than the video, if still imperfect. Composer Alfred Newman’s movingly manipulative score gets the most noticeable attention, making the only use of the rear channels at any point in the film. It also has the most consistent richness. Dialogue comes from the center speaker – with the intended 6-track directionality to the left and right mostly absent – and occasionally sounds a bit flat and thin. Bass, except in a key scene, is nonexistent. The lossless track is saved from an average rating by the splendidly clear music. There are better sounding forty-five year old films on Blu-ray, but much worse sounding ones too. Dubs are available in French Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps), German DTS 5.1 (768kbps), and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 surround (224kbps). Optional English, French, and German subtitles are included.

Extras

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” shifts to Blu-ray with some – but not all – of the supplements from the original 2-Disc DVD, including a featurette that has apparently been heavily edited from its original standard def documentary version. There is no menu screen and no optional bookmarks; instead the film plays in a continuous loop, but the disc has been authored to prompt a resume playback option via my PS3.

I never owned MGM’s original Special Edition DVD from 2001, but from what I’ve been able to gather from this sites own comparison and a couple of other sources around the internet, that disc contained a retrospective documentary running somewhere close to 40-minutes called “He Walks in Beauty”. An identically titled featurette appears here, but clocks in at less than half the runtime of the DVD version. The Blu-ray edit of “He Walks in Beauty” (4x3 480i, 14 minutes 57 seconds) focuses on, mostly, director George Stevens and his struggle to bring his vision for the life of Christ to the large-format screen. It’s a pretty informative and decent extra, with interviews from Charlton Heston and others discussing the man and the movie. Why the full version hasn’t been included is anyone’s guess, but I think I have an answer for that – based purely on conjecture.

My answer would be the next featurette, a dated but interesting vintage piece from the 1960's called “Filmmaker” (4x3 480i, 27 minutes 38 seconds) which includes a bevy of behind-the-scenes material shot on location with the production and also included on the original DVD. From what I gather – with the help a product review of the original DVD on Amazon that mentions repletion of various excepts between the two featurettes – the long-form “He Walks In Beauty” was neatly edited from this older promotional piece and lengthened by the addition of the now-condensed series of interviews with Heston, et al found on the Blu-ray. Simple deduction (and math) leads me to believe that the 41-minute DVD cut of “Walks” came from combining the near-15-minute collection interviews included on the Blu-ray with the 27-minute-and-change “Filmmaker”. Doing so results in a slightly longer runtime of 42 minutes 35 seconds, but removing the logos, a few of the shorter segments from “Filmmaker”, and the credits, makes up for that slight discrepancy in time, so I think all of the video material from the DVD is included here, just oddly repackaged. How’s that for detective work? (Our site comparison also notes a rather extensive photo gallery on the second disc of the 2001 DVD, none of which has been ported over to the Blu-ray. Apparently that really is a loss.)

A deleted scene (16x9 480p, 2 minutes 28 seconds) is an alternate take on the “Via Dolorosa” sequence, with slight alterations that make Judas’ death more biblically accurate.

Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer (1080p, 3 minutes 31 seconds) is included in high definition.

The extras are worth watching once, and often more interesting that the film itself, but the package is hardly definitive. This just marks another area in which I think MGM could have (and should have) done better before bringing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” to Blu-ray. Where’s the commentary? Certainly some biblical scholar or Stevens biographer could have recorded one; and hearing an academic discussion on the film's failures and certain successes might actually make for some interesting stuff. Based on the troubled production history alone a newer, feature-length documentary on the film would have been a welcomed watch too. And what about the hour of missing scenes? I would have liked to see them either as deletions or in a newly constructed extended cut. Not that the film needs to be longer; it really, really doesn’t (other than to smooth out the films oddly specific and troubling scenes of “description”). But the 199-minute version readily available isn’t Stevens’ original cut and that should be rectified for the sake of posterity; assuming the scenes could be found.

Overall

You get the sense while watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told” that those involved really wanted to believe they were not just telling the greatest story, but a part of the greatest movie ever made. Sadly, they, at least not in my and many others’ eyes, failed in both regards. The story isn’t compelling enough as told, and as a result the film is far from the best there ever will be. At a painfully slow, drawn out 3 hours and 20 minutes George Stevens’ production of the life of Jesus Christ is often a boring slog that feels twice as long as it is. Your enjoyment of the film will likely have to depend on one’s connection to the source material, to which the film remains utterly faithful to almost to a fault, and a general willingness to overlook the issues in pacing, questionable casting, and other areas of criticism. MGM’s Blu-ray has decent lossless audio, but other than that is a huge misfire with terribly troubled video and oddly presented extras (that are, at least I think, close to but not exactly what was offered on the DVD). For most format enthusiasts I’d suggest a skip it. Even the devoutly religious should direct their attention elsewhere due to the second-rate video presentation.

The Film: C- Video: C- Audio: B- Extras: C- Overall: C-

 


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