The Greatest Story Ever Told (Blu-ray)
Directed by George Stevens
Aspect Ratio: 2.75:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 199 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 French, 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Review Date: April 2, 2011
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.