The Greatest Story Ever Told

Draft Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

The standard criticisms aren’t completely off base, but they’re obviously delivered in in glib critic mean-spiritedness, and they’re delivered by non-believers, which makes all the difference in the world; this is obviously full of feeling and conviction, the infamous snail’s pace could just as well be seen as reverence and an unwillingness to lard things up with cheap melodramatics (though there are some of those), John Simon’s snide comment about Lazarus not being raised so much as blasted out of the tomb by Handel is not only not an accurate description of the scene–the chorus starts some time after Lazarus has appeared, in very discreet extreme long shot to boot–but seems wilfully to ignore the idea in the film’s style and in the film’s subject that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning (Ps. 30:5): solemnity has its source and reason, and it has its release, and as for all the Hallmark cracks, the kitschy connections to that company bear absolutely no resemblance to this most superbly composed, exquisitely lit, monumentally set (Utah!) and altogether tasteful and ravishing film; this is Sunday School stuff, so its simple and occasionally simple minded, and the cameos are good and bad: Claude Rains is a great Herod, the slaughter of the innocents isn’t much, the sorrow and hardship and the shadowy figure observing it all is subtle and powerful, Christ’s intro is simple and powerful, the hairpieces (Heston especially, but Max too) are unfortunate, the mountain top temptation is beautifully realized as a credible conversation arising from realistic physical circumstances, Pleasance’s Satan is powerful and the whole exhchange is quite chilling (and the negative space and the full moon is very impressive), the preaching and proliferation is strangely sketchy and uninvolving, the calling of St. Matthew is lovely, the healing of Sal Mineo is strange, the Magdalene is the adulteress stuff is annoying as usual, and de Mille knocks this version silly, Shelley Winters is terrible, of course, the visit to Nazareth is excellent transcendental style, the transcendence being the very quiet healing of blind Ed Wynn, who’s good, then bad, then good, Mary and Martha, as Lazarus, as so many of the peripherals (and the music) seem all going through the motions and no substance, but in the midst of the stiltedness is another Von Sydow close up about being the resurrection and the life, and the very simple, very moving dramatization of “Jesus wept”, entry’s good, cleansing’s not, betrayal’s good, supper’s adequate, Nicodemus at the trial is superb, and brings to mind Dreyer’s nuanced social and political considerations in the Jesus script, Savalas is actually not bad, the carrying of the cross is full of pathos, and the Poitier cameo works because of the lovely thing Von Sydow does when he’s helped, the crucifixion isn’t much, as the seven last words are kind of laid end to end, the final Handel montage seems precipitous as well, though pleasingly (the recording is awfully bland, though), and Christ appears as in King of Kings, closing curiously with not needing to worry about the morrow because today’s sufficiently full of problems–reassurance for the chaos of 1965?; Capra’s claims about why his career ended seems to apply more to Stevens, and maybe this film is kind of like How the West Was One, except that the rejection of what it represents is less justified and more portentous; as for the other critical cliché, the “fatal miscasting” of stars in bit parts, why doesn’t anyone ever say why it’s fatal? John Wayne is silly, but most of the stars aren’t so big and they work pretty well (Van Heflin), what’s wrong is that they’re going for typage, faces expressive of classes and circumstances and ideas, but instead of going for Soviet or neo-realist actual people, or even the decorative Hollywood typage of Panic in the Streets, they choose stars, which represent not struggle or nobility or the need for a saviour so much as artifice, separation from real issues and experience, and the real fatal irony which is the selling of Christ as a film commodity, with all the fancy wrappings of a commodity; there, it seems, are the tensions, Christ is here, and belief in and reverence for him, but they’re having to please the public too, and at some point you’ve got to leave the Sunday Schoolers behind and go to the temple, even though you know that comparitively few will keep the covenants and get what’s available (cf. Pasolini’s Christ, Ordet)