(a unique film review by Timothy J. Verret)
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Before I begin my film review, I need to write this disclaimer for my therapist Mark, who I adore. Mark saw THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD when he was just a wee lad, and it scared him something awful. It moved and terrified him so much that he wanted to kill all the Roman soldiers who hurt Jesus. “So, Mark, I know you are a ‘constant’ when it comes to following my creativity here, but please feel free to bail out of reading this review if you feel any trepidation of being triggered by bad memories. I don’t want that to happen 🤗)
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD was, for its time, the greatest film, as far as expense, ever made at a whopping $20 million which seems like “chump change” nowadays. And the film had some of the greatest stars to ever grace the screen: Charlton Heston, Rod Steiger, Claude Rains, Sidney Poitier, just to name a few. But none of these stars were able to hold a spiritual candle to Max von Sydow as Jesus of Nazareth (more to come about him later in the review).
And it’s very easy to see while watching THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD that the $20 million was well spent. The sets, the art direction, the costumes….WOW, WOW, WOW!!!! It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, and I can only imagine the awestruck wonder of watching this film on the big screen when it initially came out in 1965. The copy I purchased, thank God, was in widescreen, so I got the scope as best as I could on my 30-something-inches TV screen. Some films are pretty to look at but that’s about it. This film is not one of those films, though there are some things lacking to truly (Jesus’ favorite word next to “love”) deem it a masterpiece.
The screenplay for THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is, of course, the Bible (I don’t care who gets the film credit for the screenplay; I know God IS the Original Screenwriter). I didn’t expect the film to be just a Word-for-Word reiteration of the Bible, but there were many Words of Jesus left off in the film that left me wanting more of His Words. What is included, though, is beautiful to listen to, and it helps to have Max von Sydow’s commanding voice to inspire and bring many a chill down the spine.
I’m not all that enchanted by the big-name stars in this film, probably because they were way before my time, but I would say there was not a bad seed in the bunch. I was not sure what to make of Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate; I only know Savalas as Kojak and the bald head was evident even in his earlier work here (and, by the way, “Mark, if you’ve read this far, I took note of your reference to Savalas as deemed “sexy” for his day when I often question if I’m “sexy,” but I’m still not sold! 😎). And was that John Wayne’s voice I heard as the Centurion who exclaimed after the crucifixion, “Truly, this was the Son of God?” It was him because I looked it up, but I swear that voice did not sound right at all. Sorry, Wayne!
The other jarring thing left off in this film was more of a thing rushed. It was what I would call a “rushed Crucifixion.” Hauntingly shot with excellent lighting, the full Crucifixion of Jesus went way too fast for a 3-1/2-hour film! Director George Stevens could have “bled” more in this part of the film. I don’t know exactly how long the Crucifixion took place in real time (anybody know?), but I’m sure it wasn’t just 20 minutes top! Stevens took the time with Jesus carrying the cross which was painful to watch, but on Calvary he could have left us there for the time it took for us to feel intensely Jesus’ Suffering. That said, I watched all 20 minutes with tears in my eyes, but I wanted the magnitude of this momentous milestone in history to not only bring tears to my eyes but also pains to my heart.
Now that I got the film reviewer’s logistics out of the way, I can get to my favorite part of reviewing this film, and that is Max von Sydow! Max von Sydow was Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s always dependable lead actor. I say this because Bergman directed von Sydow in just about every major Bergman film I’ve seen, i.e., THE SEVENTH SEAL, WINTER LIGHT, SHAME, HOUR OF THE WOLF, THE MAGICIAN, and more! Ingmar Bergman was not only the greatest director who ever lived, in my opinion, but by far the greatest director who was not an actor himself. Not being an actor, Bergman somehow knew actors deeply and intensely, and he knew how to get the deepest and most intense work out of them. My vote would have been for Bergman to direct THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, and this would seem to fit not only for the casting of Max von Sydow but also because Bergman was known to have wrestled some major religious demons in his films. It seems this film would have been right up Bergman’s spiritual alley. But Bergman didn’t direct this film (it would have been something to behold if he had), but thank God director Stevens chose Max von Sydow to play the pivotal role of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s not just the commanding voice of von Sydow that makes him the perfect choice for Jesus. It’s the vulnerability and “softness” of von Sydow’s disposition. He has that narrow face (I can relate) that leaves his face somewhat droopy, as though the life has been or is being drained out of him, which is ideal for playing Jesus. Max has the beautiful and inviting eyes (I can relate) and he’s tall (I can’t relate). Max is imposing but gentle as Jesus. I wanted to hug him I cannot tell you how many times while watching this film. That is the highest compliment I can pay for any actor playing Jesus!
I looked over some critic reviews that were not so kind about THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. It seems they reviewed the film with a “back seat” to the true-to-life story being told. One reviewer said the film should “captivate the piously devout.” Well, I sure hope so. But what about those not “piously devout?” Would they not be captivated by this film? I think they would.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is not just the greatest story ever told about the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the ONLY story about the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that is worth being told over and over again!