Film: The Greatest Story Ever Told

The film so holy it turned Telly Savalas bald.

In 1965, director George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told portrayed the life of Jesus and his miracles from Nativity to Resurrection. For a plot synopsis you might as well just read The Bible.

While Story was not the first of its ilk, this broad epic scope is one of the notable features of this film and was something the creators wanted to play up. The then-unknown (in the U.S.) Max von Sydow was cast as Jesus, but the rest of the cast and crew was filled with big names, some coming in for short cameos. It had actors like Claude Rains, Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Sidney Poitier, Donald Pleasence, the oft-commentated-on John Wayne as the Centurion at the crucifixion and the aforementioned Telly Savalas, who shaved his head for his role as Pontius Pilate in this film and then decided never to grow it back.

David Lean (Mr. Epic Sweeping Landscapes) and Jean Negulesco even added exterior shooting in the great open spaces of the US to add a more epic feel than Real Life Israel could offer.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Of The Four Gospels.
    • The film also credits "the writings of Fulton Oursler and Henry Denker". It shares its title and subject matter with a 1947-1956 radio drama series written by Denker, based on a novel by Oursler that wasn't actually published until 1949.
  • Bible Times: Naturally, along with many tropes one might find in the New Testament of The Bible.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and ends with shots of a church, which has a mural of Jesus who looks exactly like Max Von Sydow.
  • California Doubling: Shot in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. The area standing in for the Jordan River is now a reservoir.
  • Cameo: It was the fairly common practice at the time of casting a fresh new actor as the lead and then surrounding him with more familiar faces. Besides the major roles, the film has:
    • Most famously, John Wayne as the centurion at the Crucifixion
    • Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene
    • Pat Boone as the angel at the empty tomb
    • Shelley Winters as a woman healed by Jesus
    • Angela Lansbury as Pilate's wife
    • Roddy McDowall as Matthew
  • Carpet of Virility: The extremely masculine Charlton Heston as John the Baptist.
  • Composite Character:
    • Lazarus of Bethany is equated with the rich (young) man who asks Jesus about eternal life.
    • Mary Magdalene is equated with rhe woman caught in adultery.
  • God in Human Form: Jesus. Emphasized by Max Von Sydow's solemn portrayal; no Jesus Was Way Cool here, unlike other film versions.
  • Looks Like Jesus: Averted with the long hair. Max Von Sydow has much shorter hair than other movie depictions.
  • Satan: Portrayed by Donald Pleasence, called "the Dark Hermit" only in the credits. The temptation of Jesus in the desert is depicted as an encounter with a hermit on a mountain. He shows up later when things are going bad for Jesus: He helps stir up a crowd to proclaim Jesus king, forcing Jesus to escape; Judas passes by him on the street when he goes to betray Jesus; he makes Peter deny Jesus; finally he leads the crowd in calling for Jesus's death.
  • Shown Their Work: Simon of Cyrene is depicted as black since he's Sidney Poitier in a cameo, but there is indeed a theory that Simon of Cyrene is the same man as "Simeon Niger" (Simeon the Black) in the Acts of the Apostles.
  • Standard Snippet: Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
  • Title Drop - In the opening narration.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth - Jesus, obviously. Lampshaded by Mary, Lazarus' sister:
    Mary: I'm frightened for him.
    Lazarus: Why, Mary?
    Mary: He is too good.