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Film / The Greatest Story Ever Told

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The film so holy, it turned Telly Savalas bald.

A 1965 epic from director George Stevens, The Greatest Story Ever Told portrays the life of Jesus, his ministry and miracles from Nativity to Resurrection. For a plot synopsis you might as well just read The Four Gospels.

While Story was not the first film of its kind, this broad scope is one of its notable features 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. Among the actors seen here are Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, José Ferrer, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, Sidney Poitier, Angela Lansbury, 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).


Stevens, along with uncredited co-directors David Lean (Mr. Epic Sweeping Landscapes) and Jean Negulesco, even added exterior shooting in the great open spaces of the Southwestern U.S. 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.
  • Bookends: The film opens and ends with shots of a church, which has a mural of Jesus who looks exactly like Max Von Sydow.
  • The 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
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    • 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
    • A large number of other famous actors made brief appearances, some only for a few seconds. One reviewer quipped that "it made the Via Dolorosa look like the Hollywood Walk of Fame!"
  • 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 the woman caught in adultery.
  • Doomed New Clothes: Mary and Martha clothe Jesus in a white robe for his entry into Jerusalem. 24 hours later, the robe gets stained (sweat, dirt, blood) and ripped.
  • God in Human Form: Jesus. Emphasized by Max von Sydow's solemn portrayal; no Jesus Was Way Cool here, unlike other film versions.
  • Intermission: Occurs when Bar Amand, Uriah, and Old Aram reach the Gates of Jerusalem and declare the miraculous powers (two of whom benefited from) of the Messiah named Jesus.
  • Kangaroo Court: At the Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus, the Pharisee Nicodemus criticizes Caiaphas for filling the court mainly with members sharing his own biased view, excluding any member who would disagree and defend Jesus (like Joseph of Arimethea).
  • Looks Like Jesus: Averted with the long hair. Max Von Sydow has much shorter hair than other movie depictions.
  • Manly Tears: Jesus weeps before he goes to raise Lazarus.
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Grief-stricken Martha, having lost her brother Lazarus, criticizes Jesus for coming too late to save her brother:
    Come to bury the dead? Or come to see the mourners? You made a leper well. You made a cripple walk. Was it too much to ask that you to keep my brother from dying? Why do come now that he is dead, when you could have come while he lived? When he needed you? Why?!?
  • Widescreen Shot: Filmed in Ultra-Panavision, which means many scenes suffer in Pan and Scan:
    • The Part 1 climax shot of Bar Armand, Uriah, and Old Aram; usually one of them is cropped out.
    • The Last Supper scene. Half of the Disciples (the ones played by Roddy McDowall, David Hedison, Jamie Farr, and David McCallum) are cropped out.
    • The end of the Sanhedrin Court, when Jesus admits his divinity, a Pharisee screams "Blasphemy!" Cropped versions make him offscreen.
  • Wolverine Publicity: This early advertisement showcases John Wayne as the Roman Centurion— a cameo role in which he has exactly one line.