Saturday 28 May 2011

Our Lady's Month VI - The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

'The Greatest Story Ever Told' was the last of its kind in several ways. It was the last Biblical epic ever filmed by the Hollywood Studio System, Claude Rains' last film and the last great film of director George Stevens.

The stellar cast is headed by Swedish actor Max Von Sydow in his first English-language role as Our Lord. Once again, a relative unknown is chosen so as not to disturb the pious sentiments of the audience by too many profane associations, and there is something to be said for this. However, as with Jeffrey Hunter, Max might well have asked where does a career go after playing God. In both cases, it didn't go very far.

Dorothy McGuire is cast as Our Lady and Robert Loggia as St. Joseph (who was never out of work thereafter!). It must be said that, while St. Joseph is rather silent, as is appropriate, Our Lady is portrayed as rather insipid - as it had also been suggested she was in 'King of Kings' played by Siobhán McKenna.

Charlton Heston makes another towering Biblical performance as St. John the Baptist. Jamie Farr (St. Jude Thaddeus - to whom he had prayed for work when offered the part), David McCallum (Judas), Roddy McDowall (St. Matthew), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), Pat Boone (as the Angel at the tomb), Van Heflin, Shelley Winters (healed woman #3), Ed Wynn, John Wayne (Centurion at Calvary), Telly Savalas (Pilate - for which role he shaved his head and kept it shaved for the rest of his life), Angela Lansbury (Pilate's wife), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), and Claude Rains (Herod the Great) all add a sense of a masterpiece tribute to the subject matter, although, on the other hand, the sense of wonderment at the stars might distract from the theme.

Donald Pleasence plays the dark hermit, a figure of the devil, who hovers in the background of various events in the life of Our Lord. His character adds a unique dimension of spiritual insight.

Highlights include John Wayne as the Roman centurion who witnesses Calvary with the words "truly this Man was the Son of God." Duke pays tribute to the King of Kings, as it were. the story is told that, when Stevens asked Wayne to give the line more awe, he gave the line as "Aw, truly this Man was the Son of God."

The scenes of the Passion bring this film well within the class of devotional films and a precursor of 'The Passion of the Christ.' It is a brave director who tries to top the drama of the Crucifixion but the courage of Stevens is well placed in an uplifting vignette of both resurrection and ascension.

Stevens filmed on location in North America, explaining: "I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American southwest. I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah, Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area, and it can be done better here."

Filming took so long that the actor playing Nicodemus died before completing his performance as cinematographer William C. Mellor and the actress playing St. Mary Magdalene became pregnant, requiring costume redesigns and carefully placed camera angles, and the lake where filming of St. John the Baptist's scenes delayed the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam!

Veteran David Lean was the unit director for the early scene featuring Claude Rains as Herod the Great. The film received mixed reviews, although it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Musical Score; Best Cinematography (color); Art Direction (color); Costume Design (color); and Special Visual Effects. Perhaps on account of its length (3 hours 45 minutes shortened to 3 hours 19 minutes and later to 2 hours 21 minutes), the film was a box office floperoonie and was to discourage Biblical epic movies for decades to come.


Cousin Vinnie said...

There is a gloominess in that film that I could never put a name on. David Lean doing Herod starts to make sense to me now. Hard to think this is the same director as the Fred & Ginger movies but I guess he was increasingly depressed about his career at this stage. I didnt remember claude Raines was in this one but it's pretty amazing as a way to go. Hard to see how they could do a good Virgin Mary part. Maybe the quiet and silent is more fitting even tho her few words in the Holy Bible are strong and firm... FIAT! DO WHAT HE TELLS YOU.

Shandon Belle said...

True enough Vinnie. I watched this film back in the day when the Easter and Christmas TV was holy films but I was always a bit creeped by this one.

Ransome said...

I take your point about the movie but I still think that it has a value for the Christian and non-Christian. I saw the pic a few years back and I was deeply moved by much of it.