The Greatest Story Ever Told started as a radio series in 1947 written by Henry Denker and a 1949 novel by Fulton Oursler, a senior editor at Reader’s Digest. 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck acquired the film rights and Denker wrote a script, but when Zanuck left the studio in 1956, it was forgotten.
Fast forward two years and George Stevens, fresh off The Diary of Anne Frank, learned that Fox had the rights to the story — I mean, The Bible is public domain, so I have no idea what was different about the property other than the title and this was a decade after the radio show — and he got $10 million ($90 million in today’s cash) to make this movie.
Before the movie was even made, it was already busting its budget. Stevens spent two years writing the script along with Ivan Moffat, James Lee Barrett and even poet Carl Sandburg, as well as commissioning French artist André Girard to prepare 352 oil paintings of Biblical scenes to use as storyboards, which is quite the extravagance. Then, as no movie had been even started by 1959, Denker sued Fox to reclaim the rights and for $2.5 million of damages.
Two years after that, Fox withdrew from the project as $2.3 million had been spent without any footage being shot. Stevens was given two years to find another studio or 20th Century Fox would reclaim its rights, so he moved to United Artists.
Once filming finally started, Stevens shot each scene — often with hundreds of extras — dozens of times. Instead of going to the Holy Land, he also made sets throughout the U.S., being so full of art to say, “I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American southwest. I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area, and it can be done better here.”
The major difference between Arizona and the Holy Land? It snows in the winter in Arizona.
By the time he was done, Stevens had shot 1,136 miles — miles! — worth of film. Before editing and promotion, he’d already spent $20 million or $180 million in 2022.
It made back $8 million dollars.
It ran for 4 hours and 20 minutes.
And man, it’s something else.
Balthazar (Mark Lenard, Spock’s dad), Melchior (Cyril Delevanti, a character actor and acting coach) and Gaspar (Frank Silvera, who was in another money loser, Ché!), the three wise men, are westward leading, still proceeding, seeking the King who will be born and meet King Herod (Claude Rains in his last role), who sneakily sends them to watch the Child emerge in Bethelem, but secretly he just wants to kill all the firstborn because whoever was born that night will take his throne. And he has Michael Ansara — who can be Native American or Arabic depending on the role — is ready to do the murdering.
They discover Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and Joseph (Robert Loggia!) in a manger, surrounded by animals, and they give the Son of God gold, frankincense and myrrh as an angel warns Joseph that they must escape to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. As they return to Nazareth, a pro-Israel rebellion rises against Herod’s son, Herod Antipas (José Ferrer), which is quickly stopped, but shows the Romans that the Messiah could be trouble.
Go read the Apocrypha and come back.
Pretty wild, huh? I mean, giants born of angel and man?
Start the movie back up again please.
John the Baptist (Charlton Heston, who knows something about Biblical films) is in the desert eating honey and locusts and preaching that someone even better than him will soon arrive. That would be Jesus (Max Von Sydow), who is baptized by John and then ascends a mountain where he’s tempted by the Devil (Donald Pleasence!).
Soon, Jesus promises Judas Iscariot (David McCallum), Andrew (Burt Brinckerhoff), Peter (Gary Raymond) and John (John Considine) that he will make them fishers of men. They soon meet James (well, there’s the younger played by Michael Anderson Jr. and the elder who is David Sheiner) and spend time with Martha (Ina Balin), Mary (Janet Margolin) and Lazarus (Michael Tolan).
After healing a crippled man, Matthew (Roddy McDowall!), Thaddeus (Jamie Farr!), Simon (Robert Blake!) and Thomas (Tom Reese) — the name means twin — all join the apostles as Pontius Pilate (Telly Savalas and there’s an urban legend that he shaved his head for this movie and liked it so much he never had hair again) and the church leaders debate the negative influence of John the Baptist, who is arrested and soon beheaded thanks to the influence of Salome (who of all people is not credited; some say that she was a dancer from Israel). In Capernaum, Jesus meets Mary Magdalene (Joanna Dunham, who got pregnant during the long shooting time and her belly needed to be hidden by clever filming tricks) and heals Shelley Winters, which made me stand up and beat my breast.
Jesus refuses to help a blind name called Aram (Ed Wynn) to see, he’s stoned yet returns to save the man’s sight, only to discover that Lazarus has died. The miracle of raising the dead happens as the leaders of the existing church worry about Jesus.
Intermission time. You know, old movies having a fanfare and an intermission are great, because they care so much about you that they provide moments for you to go to the bathroom. Thanks, old movies.
We come back to Jesus going wild in the temple, throwing tables over and causing mass chaos. We see Dr. Loomis following Judas, who is fated to turn heel on the Son of God and even Peter tries to babyface himself and Jesus shuts him down by saying, “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times” and Peter answers by crying. Game, serve, match, Savior.
Jesus is put on trial and even the man whose sight he saved testifies against him. Nicodemus (Joseph Schildkraut, who was in The Diary of Anne Frank and died before the movie finished) stays out of it and Peter denies Jesus, once as Blofeld watches, another time as Blythe the forger looks on and a third time while Professor John McGregor forces Peter to realize that Jesus was right.
The Pharisees bring Jesus to Pilate, who tells the crowd that he will free him if they want. They ask for Barabbas (Richard Conte) instead, so the Only Begotten Son goes to be crucified alongside Richard Bakalyan (the voice of Dinky in The Fox and the Hound) and Marc Cavell (Frankenstein in The Wild Angels). The only people on his side are Simon of Cyrene (Sidney Poitier)and Joseph of Arimathea (Abraham Sofaer) and then, in the cameo of all cameos, a Roman centurion stands as Jesus expires and says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” Supposedly, Stevens did tons of takes to get this right.
And it’s John Wayne.
The film ends with the angel (Pat Boone!?!) rolling back the stone and Jesus ascending to Heaven.
Man, who did I miss in this parade of stars? How could I miss Victor Buono as Solak? Carroll Baker as Veronica? That’s how many people are in this. I missed Carroll Baker. Oh! There was also Martin Landau as a pharisee leader, Angela Lansbury as Claudia, Sal Mineo as Uriah, Paul Stewart as Questor, John Crawford as Alexander, Frank DeKova as Tormentor, Russell Johnson — the professor! — as a scribe and so many more. There are thousands of people in this movie.
Is it holy luck that this movie has three Blofelds in it with Pleasence in You Only Live Twice, Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and von Sydow in Never Say Never Again? Isn’t it kind of cool that David Lean took a break between Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to direct some of this? That Stevens edited von Sydow so that Jesus never blinks? And how sad is it that cinematographer William C. Mellor dropped dead on the set?
I waited a long time to see this movie, as I first read about it in the Medveds’ The Hollywood Hall of Shame. It’s something else and for once, they weren’t hating on a good movie. It’s bloated and just plain too much, but that makes me love it so much more.