When first released George Stevens's version of the Gospel was dismissed as too long, too reverential, too soon after the sound version of The King of Kings was released, and too many stars in the cast taking one's attention from the story.
Too some degree that is true, but being a stargazer myself I'll never find fault with a film for that. And who knew in 1965 that we would get The Last Temptation of Christ and the Passion of the Christ in our future. George Stevens's film is looking pretty good now.
No doubt about the presence of a whole lot of movie names helped bring in the bucks. But with one glaring exception you do pay attention to the roles, not who's playing them. Some parts are pretty substantial. Charlton Heston as John the Baptist has the longest amount of screen time other than Von Sydow. Also given a large amount of time is Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary and Donald Pleasance as the Prince of Darkness.
The personification of the Devil is something Mel Gibson borrowed for his film. Personally I think Donald Pleasance is quite a bit better than what Gibson did.
Other stars had smaller roles. Sidney Poitier played a silent part as Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus with his cross on the way to Calvary. You could not have gotten away with an all white cast in a film like this by 1965. A whole group of players from previous Stevens films got some bit parts and more like Van Heflin, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo, and Ed Wynn.
One star Joseph Schildkraut had the rare distinction of playing in both Cecil B. DeMille's silent King of Kings and this film. Schildkraut played Judas for DeMille and is seen as Nicodemus here. This was Schildkraut's last film. An interesting double distinction for a man who came from a prominent Jewish theatrical family.
One big glaring error though. Stevens should never have cast John Wayne as the Roman Centurion who supervising the crucifixion. Wayne is seen in passing through out the journey to Calvary, but with no dialog. At the moment of Jesus's death with the drama unfolding it was just wrong to have that recognizable a voice utter, "truly that man was the son of God." Instead of concentrating on the story the audience gets distracted and in the theaters the whispers went up with 'ooh, that's John Wayne.'
Arizona served as the location for ancient Judea. Unlike DeMille in The Ten Commandments, Stevens concentrated on the beauty of the location as opposed to filling the screen with people. It got filled enough with the story. You might recognize the Grand Canyon as the backdrop for the sermon on the mount scene. Of course Handel's Messiah is almost obligatory for these films and it's done well here.
One scene that you will not forget comes at the end of the first act, the raising of Lazarus who is played by Michael Tolan. His sisters, Mary and Martha, are played by Ina Balin and Janet Margolin. They had shown Jesus and the disciples hospitality earlier. When Lazarus is taken ill, Mary and Margaret, go after Jesus to bring him back. It is too late, Lazarus has died and he's in his tomb. Or so everyone thinks. The sparse dialog, the photography, and the background music are so well done at this point the most hard hearted nonbeliever will pause.
Of course most of the name players in The Greatest Story Ever Told are no longer with us so the cameos don't mean as much today. It is probably better in that an audience of today can concentrate on the story without even the most minimal interference of recognition. And they can concentrate on the story without either alternate realities as in The Last Temptation of Christ or all the gore and violence of Mel Gibson's epic. Definitely worth a look by today's contemporary audience.
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