follow us on twitter

dOc on facebook

Microsoft Store

Share: email   Print      Technorati.gif   StumbleUpon.gif   MySpace   digg.gif delicious.gif   google.gif   magnolia.gif   facebook.gif
Permalink: Permalink.gif

Buy from Amazon

Buy from Amazon.com

MGM Studios DVD presents
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

James: My name is James, what's yours?
Jesus: Jesus.
James: That's a good name!
Jesus: Thank you.

- Michael Anderson Jr., Max Von Sydow

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: March 05, 2001

Stars: Max Von Sydow, Michael Anderson Jr., Carroll Baker
Other Stars: José Ferrer, Martin Landau, Telly Savalas, Charlton Heston
Director: George Stevens

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G for (depiction of Christ's crucifixion.)
Run Time: 03h:18m:34s
Release Date: March 06, 2001
UPC: 027616858948
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A C+A-A- A+

DVD Review

As biblical epics go, The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually not as widely remembered as other similar films. At least, that's always been my experience. Even dismissed works like King of Kings seem to get more press. Maybe that's because it's so different from the typical Hollywood epics of the age. At first glance this difference may not be obvious, but after awhile it does become obvious that director George Stevens' vision for this film was in a much different vein than that of previous attempts to bring the ancient world to life. Sure, Greatest Story cost $20,000,000 and is jam-packed with as many name actors as could be found, but it lacked the gratuitous use of special effects and expensive set pieces. Instead, the film seems to adhere to far more artistic, loftier goal. It's not the best on-screen story of Jesus Christ's life and times, but it's certainly one of the most breathtaking and sharply directed.

Greatest Story is the Biblical story of Jesus' time as a teacher and leader, as well as his death at the hands of the Roman empire. The story has been told countless times in cinema, and will probably be told countless more. Nothing here is particularly special or different from similar films; we know the classic parables from the Bible and we know the classic phrases and readings. The primary difference in how it is presented, though, is how director George Stevens shows his reverence for the subject. Instead of the typical, distant, cold portrayals of a storybook world into which Jesus emerges, Greatest Story backs off a bit and gives the characters some room to breathe. The dialogue, performances, and general tone of the film are far less manufactured and wooden than the typical Biblical epic, making this a very 'human' story of Christ's life. Max Von Sydow's portrayal of Jesus is subtle, quiet, and powerful. Yes, he's still a little cold and sullen (as in most 1950s and 60s religious works), but with much more underlying warmth than we're used to.

In an artistic sense, the film is also an incredible triumph. Almost every scene is lovingly composed and arranged with an obvious visual sense. A few, like Jesus' "sermon on the mount", have simply never been done with as much splendor and eye for detail as they are here. George Stevens obviously knew how to command his Ultra Panavision cameras well, and his supposed perfectionism with imagery really shows. Most movies from this age that used an extreme widescreen format like this rarely had the eye for using it quite this way. In a theater with Cinerama projection, this must have been an amazing experience.

While all these elements make Greatest Story Ever Told a very interesting film, there are many underlying problems that, unfortunately, eat away at the dramatic credibility. The are strange issues with pacing and editing. Early on, the story makes a few jumps forward that are too much, too soon. I got lost in the first hour or so because of this, and it took awhile to understand some elements of the progression. Another major problem is the casting. While the important roles are, for the most part, filled by capable, appropriate actors, the "all star cast" syndrome here is a big killer.

In an attempt to give a cameo role to SO many actors, some scenes have their integrity sacrificed in the name of showmanship, and it really kills the flow. Perhaps the best example is Charlton Heston as John The Baptist; his manic, violent, and overacted role just doesn't fit, and the mood is broken with his screaming and scenery-chewing. Another odd choice was Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate. Not that Savalas is a bad actor, but he just stands out like a sore thumb as someone not quite fitting the tone. Numerous other, ridiculous cameos appear: Shelly Winters as a healed leper, Pat Boone as a mourner at Lazarus' tomb, Ed Wynn as a blind elder, and John Wayne as a Roman Centurion. These roles are, I'm sorry to say, laughable at best. The film is littered with these kinds of cameos, which affects the suspension of disbelief and immersion into the story. Not all these roles are bad, though. Especially effective is Donald Pleasance as Satan, who continuously appears along Jesus' trek to heckle him from crowds and plant the seed of doubt in faith. Douglas Rain, José Ferrer, Martin Landau, David McCallum, and Roddy McDowell are the best of the crop. Of course, Max Von Sydow towers above them all as Jesus, easily one of the best screen versions of the religious figure.

In the end, this makes Greatest Story a series of impressive vignettes from the Bible, but certainly not something that would induce a spiritual revelation. Here we have a very strange final product: a film that's both a technical and artistic marvel, but also a disaster in terms of effective, linear storytelling.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2:75:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Greatest Story is presented in it's original, theatrical aspect ratio of 2:75:1; the extremely wide image of Ultra Panavision 70mm, one of most expansive film formats ever used. If you've never seen the film in widescreen, you've never seen the movie, period. The extraordinary vistas and visual composition of the film is finally available at home in its original glory (and anamorphically enhanced to boot). Yes, 2:75:1 is a pretty small image size for the average 4:3 TV set, but the payoff in seeing the complete work is worth it. The only complaint I have is that the opening credits use an almost microscopic font that's virtually impossible to read, even when zoomed in. Some kind of cleanup or restoration must have undoubtedly been applied to the film, as it looks stunningly gorgeous. Color balance is very good, and the film is very clean and crisp. There are no compression artifacts or anything else disc-related; the transfer itself is pristine. Obviously, being aged, the film does have some source problems, the most obvious being the murky night-sequences (or, more often, day-for-night sequences), where sometimes the sky or darker shades are very speckled and have movement in the color. Otherwise, though, the damage to the print is minimal and cleaned up. Fans should be very happy with this disc.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: According to the liner notes, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is based on the original 6-track stereo that Greatest Story was presented in when theatrically shown. Whether or not that's technically true, the soundtrack is still pretty impressive. The beautiful musical score (a collaborative effort between Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer, and Fred Steiner) is richly beefed up to auditorium-like quality, leaping off the disc like something organic. Most dialogue and sound effects are center-oriented, but some directionality and stereo effects are present. Surrounds are only used in a few instances for ambient effect; they mostly enhance the musical score. At times, the rather harsh original Mono dialogue track sounds a bit weird when the vastly improved musical score is playing. However, the moments where the film's original limitations are audible are very few.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:37:42s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Still Gallery
  2. Costume Sketches
Extras Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 2-disc set, with a second disc featuring some supplements. While I applaud the effort, don't expect something akin to the typical, gargantuan efforts we usually see on 2-discs. Rather, it would seem the second disc was made to make sure the film was totally isolated on its own for optimum bitrate quality.

The largest feature is a documentary detailing the film's production. Interviews with many of the cast members are presented, as well as many crew members. It is a very good making-of feature that showcases much behind the scenes. Especially interesting are the interviews with Max Von Sydow, who has usually been rather distant and tight-lipped about discussing the film. Other details are revealed such as location scouting and casting. Interviews with the late George Stevens are pieced together from various sources, as well as on-set footage taken at the time.

A second featurette is presented as well. This one, however, was produced at the time of the film's original release and is rather light and promotional. It's a good extra, since it shows some of the marketing tactics of the age, but it pales against the other documentary.

A gallery of costume sketches allows a look into the ideas behind making some of the more elaborate characters look more imposing. Similarly, there is a gallery of stills from the film.

There is one 'deleted scene' which is actually an alternate edit of a scene still featured in the film. According to the information on the disc, the scene is used in international versions. The differences are interesting (I won't reveal which scene), but nothing is explained as to why the scene was altered. On the negative side, this edition has failed to restore the original 4-and-a-half hour cut of the movie that I know at least a few people were hoping would make an appearance. Though this is the preferred 'director's cut', as I understand it, it's too bad the additional material was not presented in either branching paths or a separate section.

The original trailer is also featured, but it is in markedly worse condition than the film itself, and is not anamorphically enhanced.

The keepcase notes make mention of "containing portions of Handel's Messiah cut from the theatrical version." I assume this refers to the actual movie itself (in which the material appears), since there is no option to listen to this material separately.

The case itself is nicely designed (certainly better than the old VHS cover, in my opinion), and contains a small booklet with some trivia behind the making of the film.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

The Greatest Story Ever Told would best be described as a flawed masterpiece. It certainly deserves a viewing, and this new edition makes a great way to experience it for yourself. Recommended.


Back to top

Microsoft Store

On Facebook!
Promote Your Page Too



Original Magic Dress.com

Susti Heaven

Become a Reviewer | Search | Review Vault | Reviewers
Readers | Webmasters | Privacy | Contact
Microsoft Store