(director/writer: George Stevens; screenwriters: from the book by Fulton Oursler/Henry Denker/James Lee Barrett; cinematographers: Loyal Griggs/William C. Mellor; editors: Frank O’Neil/Argyle Nelson Jr.; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Max von Sydow (Jesus), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), John Wayne (Centurion at crucifixion), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Richard Conte (Barabbas), Shelley Winters (Cured Woman), Claude Rains(King Herod), Donald Pleasence (The Dark Hermit – Satan), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), Pat Boone (The figure in the tomb), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Ed Wynn (Old Aram), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Victor Buono (Sorak); Runtime: 189; MPAA Rating: G; producer: George Stevens; MGM; 1965)

“If this is the greatest story ever told I can imagine how horrid is the worst story ever told.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If this is the greatest story ever told I can imagine how horrid is the worst story ever told. Producer-director-cowriter George Steven’s (“Giant”/”The Diary of Anne Frank”) epic religious drama, based on the best seller by Fulton Oursler “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is an intolerable reverential treatment on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The $20 million lavish production shot mostly in Monument Valley, Utah (supposedly it looks like the Holy Land), and in Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen, is overlong and tedious. It’s filled with inconsequential cameos that range from John Wayne as a Roman centurion at the crucifixion proclaiming “Truly this man was the son of Gaard” and Shelley Winters as the Woman of No Name screaming “I’m cured.” Most of the cameos are unintentionally comical, while the story remains lifeless and uninspiring. Swedish actor Max von Sydow is an austere blond Jesus whose fine performance, the best one in the pic, is undermined by the film’s static nature, poor pacing and too many poor performances from all those unnecessary cameos. It seems almost every Hollywood actor did a set piece, making the length seem interminable. In one of the more enticing scenes Donald Pleasence as the Devil enters into a match of wits with Jesus, but von Sydow refuses to engage him and the scene fizzles like all the others.

The beautiful looking film always feels vacuous and it glitters as if from false gold (Or, if you are not one of the pious devout the film is aimed at, it glitters from a false depiction of God). Stevens, to no avail, spends the most time on Jesus’ birth, his ministry, execution and finally his resurrection. The veteran director never makes it a moving experience, which is what it’s supposed to be all about. Even the music by Alfred Newman though tasteful is nevertheless only ordinary, except when it becomes too intrusive hammering out a too loud Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from the “The Messiah.”