Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The film that killed the Biblical epic

On Sunday Turner Classic Movies was running a series of Easter-themed movies. Just by accident I came across George Stevens' 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. I generally avoid Hollywood costume dramas of the type made famous by Cecil B. DeMille and others -- just not a big fan of the genre -- but I couldn't stop watching this glossy retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, which climaxes with his crucifixion and resurrection.

As a believer I found it affecting, and as a film buff I found it surprisingly effective cinema -- surprising since I'm familiar with the scathing reception this massively expensive production received. Stevens was a highly successful director in his day, but fairly or unfairly this project pretty much wrecked his reputation. The movie was a commercial disappointment, and at the time was considered an artistic failure. Intervening years have been a bit more kind. The tastes of the filmgoing public were changing in the mid-60's and after Greatest Story the major studios concluded that expensive Biblical epics with big stars and thousands of extras were a losing box office proposition.

The Swedish actor Max von Sydow played Jesus as a rather remote figure, tall and with piercing blue eyes. That on its face is risible. The Jesus of the gospels is an earthier, visceral individual firmly rooted in the rough and tumble of first century Palestinian culture. Nevertheless, the reverent unironic approach of director Stevens and his leading man is quite moving, and their Jesus is tethered to the gospels by liberal use of dialogue straight from the King James Version. Perhaps it was this earnest lack of irony that many critics found so off-putting.

I have no idea the spiritual beliefs of Stevens and screenwriter James Lee Barrett, but they tell the "greatest story" with nary a wink in the direction of casting doubt on its veracity. When Pontius Pilate, played by a smirking Telly Savalas, finally condemns Jesus to death we hear a voiceover intoning an article of the Apostles' Creed -- "suffered under Pontius Pilate/was crucified, dead and buried." Whether intentionally or not this little touch drives home the point that the Christian faith is rooted in history. This minor Roman official achieved a sort of immortality because of his brief encounter with a Jewish prophet claiming to be the Son of God. Over two thousand years later his name is still on the lips of Christians each Sunday as they affirm the central tenets of the faith.

The Greatest Story Ever Told isn't a great film, but it's a worthy final chapter of a distinctive American film genre.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Interesting review, thanks Stephen! I actually meant to watch this around Easter but ended up buying "Ben Hur" instead. I'll have to check it out eventually, but I suspect you'll be right, that it's good but not great...