George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 1965 historical epic that follows the life of Jesus Christ from his birth, to his death, to his resurrection.
A significant strength of the film is Max von Sydow’s enthralling performance as Jesus; he captures the gentle, loving side of Christ, but his booming voice provides an authoritative ambiance one might expect from the Son of God. David McCallum’s Judas Iscariot is likewise praiseworthy. He portrays a sympathetic Judas, yet entwines an abhorrence within the character as well. The supporting cast is adequate, but none of the other performances stood out to me as particularly commendable.
One of my most noteworthy compliments of The Greatest Story Ever Told is the style, especially the cinematography and the music. The cinematography consists of sweeping landscape shots that romanticize the story, creating an even more absorbing experience. One minor criticism I have with the cinematography, however, is that require a close-up to elucidate the scene, but the camera remains in wide shots. The resurrection of Lazarus, though one of the best scenes in the film, suffers from this complication. Aside from that, the cinematography is one of the best things about this film.
Speaking of Lazarus’ resurrection, what makes this particular scene so brilliant is the use of George Frideric Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, contributing further to the spellbinding experience created by the cinematography. The Hallelujah Chorus is used again during Jesus’ resurrection, though ironically, I think it was utilized better during the resurrection of Lazarus.
Despite it’s run time of over four hours, the pacing of The Greatest Story Ever Told is actually quite robust. If anything, I think the film could have been a little longer, spending more time with both Jesus’ birth and his resurrection, both of which are executed fairly quickly. I know many people can be turned off by longer films, but if they are paced well, the hours fly by without notice, and in my opinion, this certainly applies to this film.
One complaint I do have is that the filmmakers added rain to the crucifixion scene in post, therefore it looks so obviously fake. The actors’ faces don’t even look wet. Most may consider this a nitpick, but the crucifixion is the crux of the entire story, and the use of these effects took me out of the moment. Additionally, there are virtually no post-production visual effects in the film at all, so the use of them during the crucifixion is rather jarring. In the overall scheme of the film, however, this complaint is minor.
Considering the embarrassingly poor quality of virtually every Biblical film made nowadays, I certainly recommend The Greatest Story Ever Told to any Christian looking for a suitable cinematic adaptation of Christ’s life, but you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it. I would recommend this film to anyone who appreciates good cinema, especially historical epics from the 50s and 60s. The performances are captivating, the cinematography is enthralling, the score is enchanting, and the film simply entertains an overall excellency.