Blu-ray Review HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: The Greatest Story Ever Told

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Apr 2, 2011.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    The Greatest Story Ever Told (Blu-ray)
    Directed by  George Stevens

    Studio: MGM/UA
    Year: 1965
    Aspect Ratio: 2.75:1   1080p   AVC codec  
    Running Time: 199 minutes
    Rating: G
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 French, 2.0 Spanish
    Subtitles:  SDH, French

    Region:  A
    MSRP:  $ 19.99


    Release Date: March 29, 2011

    Review Date: April 2, 2011

     

     

    The Film

    3/5

     

    It was not through a lack of talent (over sixty stars, a two-time Oscar-winning director), money ($20 million), or effort that The Greatest Story Ever Told didn’t emerge as one of the greatest movies ever made. Sometimes all of the exertion in the world with all of the best intentions there are simply doesn’t produce a masterwork but instead is all for naught, and The Greatest Story Ever Told is one such endeavor. Reverential, grave, meticulous to a fault, the film just  never catches fire. For all of the class of everyone involved, it’s a sober, somber bore.

     

    Certainly the life of Jesus of Nazareth (Max Von Sydow) had been told many times before on the screen, sometimes in complete renditions (King of Kings in both sound and silent incarnations, for example) and sometimes with Christ on the periphery of the action (Ben-Hur, The Robe). Thus, The Greatest Story Ever Told was not treading new ground. And true to that, producer-director-co-writer George Stevens (writing with James Lee Barrett with contributions by Carl Sandberg) touches on his birth and then springs quickly ahead thirty years to the beginnings of his missionary work. All of the familiar touchstones to his life and work are present: the gathering of his disciples (among the famous faces: Michael Anderson Jr., David McCallum, Roddy McDowall, Robert Blake, John Considine, Jamie Farr, David Hedison), the healings of Uriah (Sal Mineo), Old Arum (Ed Wynn), and the leper (Shelley Winters), the defense of Mary Magdalene (Joanna Dunham), the raising of Lazarus (Michael Tolan), the Sermon on the Mount, the triumphant procession to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and his capture, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. While some miracles are shown, others (walking on water, the loaves and fishes) are merely described after the fact. Every effort has been made to portray events as calmly and respectfully as possible without undue bombast and pomposity (well, except when the strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” come about an hour and a quarter too early marking the end of the film’s first half; it’s also used properly at the conclusion, though in composer Alfred Newman’s defense, it wasn’t his idea to do this. Stevens rejected his original score in favor of this).

     

    But even in the experienced hands of this master director, the scenes one after another stubbornly refuse to come to life. They seem overly processed and earthbound, static and undynamic to an almost unfathomable degree. Stevens has several thousand extras at his command, but everything they do seems so sterile and lifeless, and that contributes to the movie’s plodding pace and glacial transitions between the chapters in the life of the Son of God. Everything is too neat, too grounded in the director’s seriousness of purpose that there’s no place for anything spontaneous or out of the ordinary to be inserted, and when you’re dealing with a story that’s been told as many times as this one, a little something unexpected in terms of camera angles, performances, or staging would seem to be vital to maintain the audience’s interest with a piece this long (and the current film offered here is almost half an hour shorter than the original roadshow release).

     

    Max Von Sydow makes every effort to convey the spirit of love and faith within the man he’s portraying, and he’s genuinely successful in spite of playing this near-impossible role. For the film’s best and most galvanizing performance, however, one must look to Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. Long familiar with heroic roles in biblical epics, Heston’s particular stature and line delivery make him perfect for this kind of material, and his John from first moment to last is a performance that stays with the viewer. Of the disciples, David McCallum’s Judas is nicely delineated while the lesser known Gary Raymond brings conviction and appealing innocence to Peter. Other more familiar faces among them like Roddy McDowall and Robert Blake make surprisingly lesser impressions. Stevens’ biggest mistake with the film, of course, was in casting so many name personalities in cameo roles making the spot-the-star game an unfortunate inevitability. Some of them like Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, Martin Landau as Caiaphas, Sal Mineo as Uriah, and José Ferrer as Herod have substantial roles which bring some luster to the film, but slipping in John Wayne as an unconvincing Roman centurion, Shelley Winters as the leper to screech, “I’m cured,” or Pat Boone as an angel in the tomb seems misguided and completely unnecessary.

     

     

    Video Quality

    3/5

     

    The film has been framed at 2.75:1 and is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. In almost every respect to color, sharpness, and cleanliness, the image has been compromised by insufficient attention to detail. There are dust specks and small scratches (especially near the beginning) along with some print damage in places. Color can be vivid in one scene and rather wan and dull in the next. Sharpness can sometimes be startlingly good but just as often be a bit soft and lacking in detail. Flesh tones are nicely delivered and are the transfer's best asset. Black levels are only occasionally deep enough to achieve impressive inkiness; most of the time they are light enough to make the letterbox bars quite noticeable. As the light lessens during the crucifixion sequence, the image becomes distressingly digital in appearance producing one of the ugliest images yet seen on home video. Thankfully, that’s the only section of that type on display. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.

     

     

    Audio Quality

    3.5/5

     

    The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix has above average spread across the front soundstage through much of the film, but only occasionally does the music wrap around into the rear channels. Of course, ambient sounds in the rears is almost never present, but there is enough resonance in the musical score by Alfred Newman and the nicely recorded dialogue emanating from the center channel to deem the audio mix an acceptable one.

     

     

    Special Features

    3/5

     

    “He Walks in Beauty” is a combination tribute to George Stevens by co-workers and a making-of documentary featuring interviews with several important members of the production team. It runs 15 minutes in 480i.

     

    “Filmmaker” is the official United Artists production short on the making of the film detailing the process of making the movie from pre-production planning to the final editing of the movie and their hopes for a successful enterprise (though it’s sad to hear the enthusiasm of all interviewed knowing what a colossal box-office disaster the film was). It runs 27 ¾ minutes in 480i.

     

    An alternate take of the Via Dolorosa scene is offered in this 2 ½-minute excerpt in 480i.

     

    The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p, framed at 2.35:1 and runs for 3 ½ minutes.

     

     

    In Conclusion

    3/5 (not an average)

     

    Reverential but somewhat inert, The Greatest Story Ever Told may be a great story but it's not told at all well. A meticulous production counts for little with overly-studied direction and too tightly controlled and lifeless renderings by a talented cast and crew. A thoroughly mediocre visual and aural presentation also doesn’t help matters in a disappointing high definition release.

     

     

     

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC

     
  2. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    I wonder if this is the same audo mix used on the previous SD. If so, it is NOT the original theatrical mix.

    It is sometimes better, but sometimes worse.

    The ooriginal audio had panned dialogue all over the screen.
    Can you imagine someone on the far left of the 2:75 frame but their voice is coming out of the middle channel?
     
  3. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    I was listening for directionalized dialogue, and I didn't notice a single instance of it.
     
  4. OliverK

    OliverK Cinematographer

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    While I consider this release a monumental failure, or should I say Greatest Large Format on Blu-Ray Failure Ever Produced - I would not hold the lack of directional dialogue against it - it seems to be the norm with most epics on Blu-Ray and DVD.

    I agree that it would be very nice to have directional dialogue but it seems that due to most people using smaller TV's and often speakers at some distance to it that the studios shy away from such mixes.



     
  5. Ethan Riley

    Ethan Riley Producer

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    Yeah, but tv's are astronomically huge compared to the models of yesterday. I have a 42" which isn't the biggest you can get and the few films I have that utilize directional dialogue sound terrific. I think that if, in any case, the original release used such sound techniques then it should be preserved on the bluray.
     
  6. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    Why anyone would say non directional dialog seems to be the norm on epics is confused.

    Lets see - there robe and Dematrius and the Gladiators - directional
    El Cic, Fall of the Roman Empire, 55 Days at Peking - direrctional
    Ben Hur, King of Kings, the original Greatest Story Ever Told

    All these and more were directional.
     
  7. OliverK

    OliverK Cinematographer

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    Ethan,

    I have clarified my point in my previous post.
    It seems that the reasoning is that there are not enough setups that benefit from directional dialogue or that it might pose other issues - for one I could name the problem of different speakers fro center, and left/right.

    I am all for it though as I think like the original look of the film also the original multichannel sound mix should be preserved.

     
  8. Colin Jacobson

    Colin Jacobson Producer

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    It's there. I'm watching it right now, and there's definitely directional dialogue...
     
  9. Darth Lavender

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    I can confirm that, too.
    My right speaker, unfortunately, produces a bit of a buzz on certain frequencies and I definitely heard that during several of Heston's lines.
    It's very subtle directionality but it's there.
    Of course, that's not quite the same as was heard in theatres but most of those 6-track films were mixed for 5 front channels (and a mono surround) so the original mix wouldn't work anyway.
    To the film itself, it's actually one of my very favourites. Some of the cameos are a little silly, but the lead performances are excellent. I'd even call some of them career highlights (Savalas' perfectly cast Pilate especially comes to mind, and Claude Raines' got a fine swan song in his role as Herod) and this is one of the most magnificient looking films I've ever seen. Each shot is so impeccably composed and lit.
    I was pretty pleased with the blu-ray. It was a grainy, as it absolutely should be (this is a very intentionally dark film, kept in poor condition, almost 50 years old)
    Can't say I noticed any digital appearance during the crucifixion, but I wasn't paying much attention to the transfer at that point.
     
  10. philip*eric

    philip*eric Stunt Coordinator

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    This is one of my favorite films too -- it isnt a perfect film but its heart is in the right place. I am glad to read at least one favorable review of the BR which i have but haven't opened .
    It is certainly deserving of a restoration and MGM missed a chance for a Special Edition with more features and even some or all of the cut footage.
     
  11. OliverK

    OliverK Cinematographer

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    This movie is NOT grainy and what many confuse for grain on this very very bad Blu-Ray are artefacts of an old HD transfer that should have never been allowed to be put on any HD media.
    What has been done to TGSET, Spartacus, EL Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire in their Blu-Ray versions is a travesty and it is a shame especially for the first two movies as the copyright holders are big studios where people should know better than to release them like they did.
     
  12. Scott Calvert

    Scott Calvert Supporting Actor

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    You nailed it. To repeat:
    1) The Greatest Story Ever Told should not be grainy as it was shot 70mm
    2) Regardless of what film element was used for the transfer, what is displayed on the BD is not film grain. It is video fuzz from an old telecine.
    3) What would keeping a film in poor circumstances for 50 years have to do with the grain structure anyway?
     
  13. Alessandro

    Alessandro Stunt Coordinator

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    My My the blu's have not even come out yet, and already they are VERY VERY BAD BLU-RAYS.:rolleyes:
     
  14. Scott Calvert

    Scott Calvert Supporting Actor

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    What are you referring to? All those bluray discs he mentioned are terrible.
     
  15. Alessandro

    Alessandro Stunt Coordinator

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    Sorry ignore my last post i thought this was the Star Wars Thread.
     
  16. RolandL

    RolandL Producer

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    I have some comparisons of the the DVD to the Blu-ray. It is an improvement but could have been better. I also have a picture from a 70mm Ultra Panavision frame compared to the DVD. More picture information on the left, top and bottom than the DVD. A friend tells me that a 219 minute 65mm negative Cinerama print exist that could be used for a special edition Blu-ray - if that ever happens.
     
  17. DP 70

    DP 70 Supporting Actor

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    Hi Roland A 70mm Ultra Panavision print with 35mm Sep Mag which was a check print was screened in LA in 2004. I saw a 70mm print with 35mm Sep Mag of Ryans Daughter in London a few years ago i think this was a check print as well.
     
  18. Paul Rossen

    Paul Rossen Supporting Actor

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    Was the print of TGSET of the long premiere version?
     
  19. DP 70

    DP 70 Supporting Actor

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    Paul, In 70mm.com say the print was for a subsequent Video Transfer but the print had a Bluish Cast.
     
  20. AdrianTurner

    AdrianTurner Banned

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    Interesting choice of phrase . . . I don't remember that line of dialogue from TGSET. Maybe from Life of Brian?
     

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