The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 1965 American epic film produced and directed by George Stevens. It is a retelling of the Biblical account about Jesus of Nazareth, from the Nativity through to the Ascension. Along with the ensemble cast, it marked Claude Rains's final film role. It received five Academy Award nominations.
Three wise men (magi) follow a brightly shining star from Asia to Jerusalem in search of a newborn king. They are summoned by King Herod the Great, whose advisers inform him of a Messiah mentioned in various prophecies. When Herod remembers that the prophecy names nearby Bethlehem as the child's birthplace, he sends the Magi there to confirm the child's existence—and secretly sends guards to follow them and "keep [him] informed." In Bethlehem, the Magi find a married couple—Mary and Joseph—laying their newborn son in a manger. Mary states that his name is Jesus. As the local shepherds watch, the Magi present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant. After observing the distant spies' departure, the magi leave as an angel's voice warns Joseph to "take the child" and "flee".
The spies inform Herod, who decides to kill the child. He orders the death of every newborn boy in Bethlehem, and dies shortly after being informed that apparently "not one is alive". However, Joseph and Mary have escaped into Egypt with Jesus; when a messenger informs them and others of Herod's death, they return to their hometown of Nazareth.
A pro-Israel rebellion breaks out in Jerusalem against Herod's son, Herod Antipas, but the conflict is quickly quashed. Herod's kingdom is divided, Judea is placed under a governor, and Herod becomes of tetrarch of Galilee and the Jordan River. Both he and the Romans are convinced that the Messiah the troubled people cry for is "someone who will never come".
Many years later, a prophet named John the Baptist appears and preaches at the Jordan, baptizing many who come to repent. When a grown Jesus appears to him, John baptizes him. Jesus then ascends into the nearby desert mountains, where he finds a cave in which resides a mysterious hermit—a personification of Satan. The Dark Hermit tempts Jesus three times, but each temptation is overcome by Jesus, who leaves and continues climbing as John's message echoes in his mind.
He returns to the valley, where he tells the Baptist that he is returning to Galilee. Four men—Judas Iscariot and the Galilean fishermen Andrew, Peter, and John—ask to go with him; Jesus welcomes them, promising to make them "fishers of men". When they rest under a bridge, he gives parables and other teachings, which attract the attention of a passing young man named James; he asks to join them the next morning, and Jesus welcomes him. The group comes near Jerusalem, and Jesus says that "there will come a time to enter". They rest at a home in Bethany occupied by Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus asks Jesus if he could join him, but cannot bring himself to leave all he has; before leaving, Jesus promises Lazarus that he will not forget him.
The group soon arrives at Capernaum, where they meet James's brother Matthew, a tax collector whom Jesus soon asks to join them. After some thought, Matthew does so. In the local synagogue, Jesus teaches again, and miraculously helps a crippled man to walk again. Upon seeing this, many begin to follow Jesus on his journey and gather to listen to his teachings.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem priests and Pharisees are troubled by the continuing influence and preaching of the Baptist, while the governor Pontius Pilate wishes only to maintain peace. Since the Jordan is ruled by Herod, he allows the priests to inform him. When he hears that the Baptist is speaking of a Messiah, Herod sends soldiers to arrest him. Simon the Zealot informs Jesus and his disciples of the Baptist's arrest; he is welcomed as one.
The fame of Jesus begins to spread across the land and two more men, named Thaddeus and Thomas, join him. In Jerusalem, the priests become suspicious of Jesus and the curing of the cripple, and send a group to Capernaum to investigate—among them the Pharisees Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Herod hears rumors about an army due to the multitudes that follow Jesus, and questions John the Baptist about him. Herod begins to consider killing the Baptist, with his wife's encouragement—she herself is the ex-wife of Herod's brother, and has been attacked by John for being adulterous.
Jesus is soon asked to return to Capernaum by another man named James. Crowds gather and celebrate his return, something that is noticed by the Pharisees who are present and the returned Dark Hermit. Jesus then defends a woman caught in the act of adultery, who identifies herself as "Mary of Magdalene". Among the crowd that gathers as he moves away is a sick woman who is cured when she touches his clothes. Both of these instances cause many to have faith in Jesus.
Herod begins to wonder about Jesus, and the Baptist confirms that Jesus has escaped from the massacre ordered by Herod's father. Herod then decides to finally kill the Baptist by beheading, which occurs while Salome, Herod's stepdaughter by his wife's first marriage, dances for him. When the Baptist is dead, Herod sends soldiers to arrest Jesus.
Jesus gives a sermon on a mountain to a great crowd, while Pilate and the Pharisees hear of many of Jesus's miracles: turning water into wine, feeding five thousand people, and walking on water. While resting, Jesus asks his disciples who they and others say that he is: they give many answers, and Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, prompting Jesus to anoint him as "the rock on which [he] will build [his] church".
At Nazareth, the people refuse to believe in Jesus and his miracles and demand to see for themselves by bringing a blind man named Aram and demanding that Jesus make him see. When he does not, the people are disgusted when he calls himself the Son of God, and briefly stone him. Jesus reunites with his mother, along with a sick Lazarus and his sisters. Andrew and Nathaniel escort Lazarus home to Bethany, while Jesus and the others flee from Herod's approaching soldiers, but not before Jesus heals Aram's sight. When informed that Lazarus is dying, Jesus does not go immediately to Bethany, but to the Jordan where the group gives a prayer. Andrew and Nathaniel return, informing them that Lazarus has died, and Jesus then goes to Bethany where he brings Lazarus back to life, a miracle that amazes the witnessing Jerusalem citizens, but concerns the Pharisees.
Judas questions why Mary Magdalene is anointing Jesus with expensive oil, and Jesus states she is preparing him for his death. Jesus then dons a new garment, and rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. In the courtyard of the Temple, Jesus drives the merchants and money changers away, and the large crowd prevents the Pharisees from arresting Jesus, an action ordered even though it is Passover. He teaches in the Temple courtyard, and leaves when Pilate dispatches soldiers to restore peace and close the gates. Many of the Temple's crowd are killed as a result.
While the disciples gather to prepare and partake in an evening meal, Judas leaves and promises to hand Jesus over to the Pharisees on the condition that no harm comes to him. The Dark Hermit's presence indicates approaching danger. When Judas returns to the meal, Jesus announces to all that one of them will betray him, that by morning Peter will deny three times that he even knows Jesus, and gives a farewell discourse. Jesus then gives bread and wine to the disciples, and tells Judas before he leaves again to "do quickly what [he has] to do".
Jesus then prays at Gethsemane while Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver to lead soldiers to arrest Jesus. When they arrive, Judas kisses Jesus, and Jesus orders Peter to "put back [his] sword". Jesus is put on trial before the Sanhedrin, and Aram appears as one of the questioned witnesses. Most of the members are present, as Nicodemus—who refuses to take part—notices that many (including Joseph of Arimathea) are absent. Meanwhile, the Hermit is outside and asks the nearby Peter if he knows Jesus. Peter denies it twice and leaves. When Caiaphas asks Jesus if he is the Christ, Jesus's reply causes the members to condemn him.
The Pharisees and Caiaphas bring Jesus to the tired Pilate, who after questioning Jesus—and briefly speaking with his wife—finds no guilt in Jesus. Since Galilee is under Herod's authority, Jesus is sent to Herod, though he and his soldiers merely ridicule him and send him back to Pilate. As Jesus is escorted back to Pilate, the Hermit continues to observe, and Peter once again denies Jesus, as a remorseful Judas looks on.
In the morning, Pilate presents Jesus before the assembled crowd, and the Hermit begins various cries for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate offers compromises: that Jesus merely be scourged, and then the release of a prisoner of the crowd's choice. They choose the supposed murderer Barabbas instead. Pilate then asks Jesus if he has anything to say; Jesus merely states that his kingdom is "not of this world", something that the Hermit and others claim is a challenge of the authority of Rome and the Roman emperor. With no other choice, Pilate reluctantly orders Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus then carries his cross through Jerusalem while the crowd looks on. When he collapses, a woman wipes his face and he reassures the women of Jerusalem. Soon, the soldiers force a man named Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry the cross when no one else will. At Golgotha, Jesus is stripped and nailed to the cross, which is then raised between those of two other men while Judas throws his silver into the Temple and throws himself into the fire of the nearby altar. He asks God to "forgive them, for they know not what they do", and leaves his mother in the care of John. While one of the thieves asks Jesus to save them, the other accepts his punishment and asks for Jesus to remember him, a promise that Jesus gives to him. As the sky darkens, Jesus asks why God has forsaken him, is offered wine in a sponge, and dies before a storm emerges. As an earthquake begins, a centurion states that "truly this man was the son of God".
Peter mourns Jesus while he is being laid to rest in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The Pharisees ask for Pilate to place guards around the tomb and seal it, to prevent a possible theft of the corpse that could potentially fulfill a prophecy of resurrection; Pilate agrees, but on the morning of the third day the guards discover the tomb is open and empty. Meanwhile, though Thomas has weakened faith, Mary Magdalene—along with Peter and others—recall the prophecy and run to see the empty tomb. Word quickly spreads throughout Jerusalem, the miraculous event bewildering the Pharisees. Caiaphas claims that "the whole thing will be forgotten in a week", while an elder scribe doubts this.
Jesus ascends to heaven before his disciples, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and others, leaving them with his final commands as clouds engulf him. He then states that he will always be with them, "even unto the end of the world".
The major roles in the movie are these:
- Max von Sydow as Jesus
- Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary
- Charlton Heston as John the Baptist
- Claude Rains as Herod the Great
- José Ferrer as Herod Antipas
- Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate
- Martin Landau as Caiaphas
- David McCallum as Judas Iscariot
- Donald Pleasence as "The Dark Hermit" (a personification of Satan)
- Michael Anderson Jr. as James the Just
- Roddy McDowall as Matthew
- Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene
- Joseph Schildkraut as Nicodemus
- Ed Wynn as "Old Aram"
Smaller, credited roles (some only a few seconds) were played by:
- Michael Ansara
- Carroll Baker
- Ina Balin
- Robert Blake
- Pat Boone
- Victor Buono
- John Considine
- Richard Conte
- John Crawford
- Cyril Delevanti
- Jamie Farr
- David Hedison
- Van Heflin
- Russell Johnson
- Angela Lansbury
- Mark Lenard
- Robert Loggia
- John Lupton
- Janet Margolin
- Sal Mineo
- Nehemiah Persoff
- Sidney Poitier
- Gary Raymond
- Marian Seldes
- David Sheiner
- Abraham Sofaer
- Paul Stewart
- Michael Tolan
- John Wayne
- Shelley Winters
- Richard Bakalyan (uncredited)
- Marc Cavell (uncredited)
The Greatest Story Ever Told originated as a U.S. radio series in 1947, half-hour episodes inspired by the Gospels, written by Henry Denker. The series was adapted into a 1949 novel by Fulton Oursler, a senior editor at Reader's Digest. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, acquired the film rights to the late Oursler's novel in 1954 for a down payment of $110,000 plus a percentage of the gross, and Denker wrote a draft script, but Fox never brought it to pre-production. When Zanuck left the studio in 1956, the project was forgotten.
In 1958, when George Stevens was producing and directing The Diary of Anne Frank at 20th Century Fox, he became aware that the studio owned the rights to the Oursler property. Stevens created a company, "The Greatest Story Productions", to film the novel and Fox set a budget of $10 million, twice their previous biggest.
The screenplay took two years to write. Stevens collaborated with Ivan Moffat and then with James Lee Barrett. It was the only time Stevens received screenplay credit for a film he directed. Ray Bradbury and Reginald Rose were considered but neither participated. The poet Carl Sandburg was considered for completion work on the screenplay but ended up being hired for a year to participate in the film's story, though it is not certain if any of his contributions were included. Sandburg, however, did receive screen credit for "creative association".
Financial excesses began to grow during pre-production. Stevens commissioned French artist André Girard to prepare 352 oil paintings of Biblical scenes to use as storyboards. Stevens traveled to the Vatican to see Pope John XXIII for advice.
As the film was not produced by the end of 1959, Denker sued Fox to reclaim the rights and for $2.5 million of damages. In August 1961, 20th Century Fox withdrew from the project, noting that $2.3 million had been spent without any footage being shot. Stevens was given two years to find another studio or 20th Century Fox would reclaim its rights. Stevens moved the film to United Artists.
Meanwhile, MGM proceeded with its own 1961 Technicolor epic about the life of Christ, King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, which was filmed in Spain, and is nearly an hour shorter than The Greatest Story Ever Told.
For The Greatest Story Ever Told, Stevens cast Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Jesus. Von Sydow had never appeared in an English-language film and was best known for his performances in Ingmar Bergman's dramatic films. Stevens wanted an actor unknown to international audiences, free of secular and unseemly associations in the mind of the public.
The Greatest Story Ever Told features an ensemble of well-known actors, many in brief, even cameo, appearances. Some critics would later complain that the large cast distracted from the solemnity, notably in the appearance of John Wayne as the Roman centurion who comments on the Crucifixion, in his well-known voice, by stating: "Truly this man was the Son of God."
Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told in the U.S. southwest, in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. Pyramid Lake in Nevada represented the Sea of Galilee, Lake Moab in Utah was used to film the Sermon on the Mount, and California's Death Valley is the setting of Jesus's 40-day journey into the wilderness. Parts of the film were also shot at Lake Powell, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point in Utah.
Stevens explained his decision to use the U.S. rather than in the Middle East or Europe in 1962. "I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American southwest. ... I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area, and it can be done better here."
Forty-seven sets were constructed, on location and in Hollywood studios, to accommodate Stevens's vision. The Jerusalem city set was built near the northwest corner of RKO Forty Acres by early 1963, and was demolished soon after filming was completed mid-year.
To fill location scenes with extras, Stevens turned to local sources. R.O.T.C. cadets from an Arizona high school played Roman soldiers after 550 Navajo Indians from a nearby reservation allegedly did not give a convincing performance. Other sources claim they weren't on set long enough and left early to take part in a tribal election, and the Arizona Department of Welfare provided disabled state aid recipients to play the afflicted who sought healing by Jesus.
Principal photography was scheduled to run three months but ran nine months or more due to numerous delays and setbacks, most of which were due to Stevens's insistence on shooting dozens of retakes in every scene. Joseph Schildkraut died before completing his performance as Nicodemus, requiring scenes to be rewritten around his absence. Cinematographer William C. Mellor had a fatal heart attack during production; Loyal Griggs, who won an Academy Award for his cinematography on Stevens's 1953 Western classic Shane, was brought in to replace him. Joanna Dunham became pregnant, which required costume redesigns and carefully chosen camera angles.
Much of the production was shot during the winter of 1962–1963, when Arizona had heavy snow. Actor David Sheiner, who played James the Elder, quipped in an interview about the snowdrifts: "I thought we were shooting Nanook of the North." Stevens was also under pressure to hurry the John the Baptist sequence, which was shot at the Glen Canyon area which was scheduled to become Lake Powell with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, and the production held up the project.
Stevens brought in two veteran filmmakers. Jean Negulesco filmed sequences in the Jerusalem streets and the Nativity scenes, while David Lean shot the prologue featuring Herod the Great. Lean cast Claude Rains as Herod.
By the time shooting was completed in August 1963, Stevens had amassed six million feet of Ultra Panavision 70 film (about 1829 km or 1136 miles, roughly the radius of the Moon). The budget ran to $20 million (equivalent to $167 million in 2019) plus additional editing and promotion charges, making it the most expensive film shot in the U.S.
The Greatest Story Ever Told premiered February 15, 1965, 18 months after filming wrapped, at the Warner Cinerama Theatre in New York City. It opened two days later at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles and then in Miami Beach. The film opened in Philadelphia and Detroit on March 9, 1965 and an edited version opened March 10, 1965 at the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. It also opened March 10 in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and in Boston on March 11. A shorter version was released in February 1967 for its general release in Chicago.
The marketing campaign included exhibits created for churches and Sunday schools, department stores, primary schools, and secondary schools. The Smithsonian Institution put together a traveling exhibition of props, costumes, and photographs that toured museums around the country. Promotional items made available to groups identified for market segmentation included school study guides, children's books, and a reprint of the original novel by Oursler. Previews of the film were shown to leading industrialists, psychologists, government officials, religious leaders, and officials from the Boy and Girl Scout organizations.
The film was advertised on its first run as being shown in Cinerama. While it was shown on an ultra-curved screen, it was with one projector. True Cinerama required three projectors running simultaneously. A dozen other films were presented this way in the 1960s.
The version that premiered in New York had a running time of 221 to 225 minutes (excluding a 10-minute intermission) per reviews from The New York Times and Variety. The original running time was 4 hr 20 min (260 min).
28 minutes were cut for the release of the film in Washington D.C. to tighten the film without deleting any scenes and these cuts were later made to the other prints. The film was edited further with a running time of 137 to 141 minutes for general U.S. release. This shortened version removed Jesus's 40-day journey into the wilderness featuring Donald Pleasence as well as appearances by John Wayne and Shelley Winters.
For the 2001 DVD release, a 3 hr. 19 mins. (199 min) version was presented along with a documentary called He Walks With Beauty (2011), which details the film's tumultuous production history.
Critical reaction toward the movie was divided once it premiered. In its favor, Robert J. Landry of Variety called the film "a big, powerful moving picture demonstrating vast cinematic resource". The Hollywood Reporter stated: "George Stevens has created a novel, reverent and important film with his view of this crucial event in the history of mankind."
However, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote: "The most distracting nonsense is the pop-up of familiar faces in so-called cameo roles, jarring the illusion." Shana Alexander in Life stated: "The pace was so stupefying that I felt not uplifted – but sandbagged!" John Simon – later notorious as the frequently scathing theater and film critic of New York – wrote: "God is unlucky in The Greatest Story Ever Told. His only begotten son turns out to be a bore." Bruce Williamson, in Playboy, likewise called the movie "a big windy bore."
Stevens told a New York Times interviewer: "I have tremendous satisfaction that the job has been done – to its completion – the way I wanted it done; the way I know it should have been done. It belongs to the audiences now … and I prefer to let them judge." Reviews of the film continue to be mixed, as it currently holds a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews.
Commercially, the film was not successful (by 1983 it had grossed less than $8 million, perhaps 17 percent of the amount required to break even), and its inability to connect with audiences discouraged production of biblical epics for years.
Even with the mixed critical reception and low box office receipts, The Greatest Story Ever Told was nominated for five Academy Awards