Swedish actor Max Von Sydow made his English-speaking debut in this gargantuan retelling of the life of Christ from Giant director George Stevens. The much-ballyhooed all-star cast includes Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and John Wayne as The Centurion at The Crucifixion. Filmed in Death Valley and in Utah, Nevada and Arizona locations, this dazzling epic garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Special Effects and Best Score.


George Stevens managed to craft a remarkable number of fine films in his early and mid-career. It was only natural that, in approaching his late period, he sought to expand his already grand horizons and create a towering work. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was Steven’s choice as a personal challenge. What could be more formidable that this subject? Stevens undoubtedly knew that the material was probably impossible to craft into a “perfect” product before he started. That was no reason, though, for one of his talent, training and experience to be discouraged. The production occupied many years of Stevens’ life, including tremendous production challenges. He also was faced with the task of not only balancing its costly budget, but also turning in an attractive profit for the studio which supported his efforts.

The film unfolds like pages turning in a book. Jesus is born, then appears at age thirty to begin his mission. He goes to his cousin John for baptism, then calls men to follow him. Miracles are performed almost in an indirect way: Jesus speaks in Sydow’s commanding voice and, instead of focusing on Christ, the camera is fixed on the person receiving the miracle. A notable exception is the raising of Lazarus. Christ pleads in anguish for the revival of his friend, not because the prayer is really necessary, but to cry out his sorrow for losing Lazarus. As God made man, Jesus hurt like we did, and this scene demonstrates this. His teachings are given gently but firmly throughout the movie. Some viewers may be put off by Sydow’s almost detached mannerisms, but the quiet dignity actually suits the concept of Christ as teacher on his salvific mission. The gentle mien of Jesus also stands in stark contrast to the times when he does strongly react, whether to the death of Lazarus, to finding moneychangers in the Temple of Jerusalem, or during his passion and crucifixion. The moment when Christ’s life ends is stunning; the light goes out in Sydow’s clear blue eyes just before he drops his head.

There are other little gems strewn throughout The Greatest Story Ever Told, moments that shine with unexpected clarity. The calling of Matthew, the betrayal and suicide of Judas, the healing of the crippled young man are just a few examples. The Last Supper is very surprising in its similarity to the way a priest consecrates the bread and wine in a modern-day Mass. The famous actors embrace their roles and seem honored to be part of this great project. The dialogue is beautiful for a reason; American poet Carl Sandburg was in charge of rendering the ancient Bible story into modern wording without sacrificing the meaning or power of the original. Dynamics shift like the ebb and flow of tides, floating on the words as well as the events.

The Blu-Ray comes with no special features, as it was a sheer feat just fitting this epic film onto one maxed BD-50 disc. This film has had issues arriving on Home Video, as its bizarre aspect ratio has proven to be too widescreen for most native outlets. However, the AVC encode does its best to make the opening text legible played against an ever-expansive landscape. The crucifixion scene still has backgrounds that look like a PS2 game, but you should be able to forgive that. I’d recommend a purchase.



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