Twelve Things about The Greatest Story Ever Told
It's a Friday in Lent: no better time to post these twelve thoughts and impressions about this unapologetically religious movie. (I had to review it for Atlas TV Guide; my article will come out in the March issue.)
12. George Stevens seems to want to be a cinematic painter rather than a movie director: every frame has the composition and balance of a painting--an impression greatly reinforced by the fact that some of the backdrops are paintings. When there is movement, such as in the crowd scenes, all the extras look as graceful and choreographed as a corps de ballet.
11. If not a painting, then a stage production. Everything is lined up for the benefit of the fourth wall . . . and the music is marvelous.
10. Most of the lines are lifted directly from Scripture and those who speak them often seem to be doing really dreamy Mass readings. Yet the best lines are the original ones, like King Herod's admission, "The child of the imagination is the child I fear"--or Pilate's "The Son of God? Which one? Mars? Hercules? Jupiter?"
9. Paraphrases are also good, such as the line in which Pilate quotes, to Herod Antipas, Jesus' admonition that we should love our enemies . . . and then the two sworn enemies smile ironically at each other.
8. One of my favourite moments is when Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" He asks both Judas and St. Thomas first, and both of them give honest but waffling answers. Then St. Peter, who hasn't been addressed at all, stands up and butts in with his famous answer: "You are the Messiah! The Son of God!"
(A friend whom I described this scene to was equally impressed, saying, "That is so Peter!" Quite!)
7. Judas is also very interesting. We see him as one of the first disciples and note several instances in which he really does not get Jesus. Yet the filmmakers totally dropped the ball by giving him the most unlikely and logically unintelligible reason for betraying Judas in the end. (JudasFail!)
6. Now a word about the casting: I'm not impressed at all by Max von Sydow as Jesus. Then again, after Jim Caviezel played Him, will I ever be impressed by anyone else again?
5. At first, I had problems with the palette. Why were all the "good guys" in beige, while all the sinners wore bright, resplendent colours? Then I realised that colour itself hadn't been sanctified yet: it, too, was waiting for the first Easter.
4. I don't think this film is meant to be dramatically compelling (especially since the audience would have been familiar with all the major plot points, anyway). It may not work as an epic, but it makes a good epic-length meditation on the life of Jesus.
3. No Christ figure is complete without a Mary figure. This isn't a very Marian movie and is the weaker for it. I was particularly miffed that the turning of water into wine at Cana was replaced with another first miracle . . . though that's fair enough, as my aforementioned friend pointed out, because not all the Gospels were written by St. John!
2. At least the devil is very well represented--and I say this as someone who takes her standard from the Morality Plays. He first appears in the wilderness, to tempt Jesus. He shows up again after Jesus has been arrested, to tempt St. Peter to deny Him--with more success. Finally, he shows up again when Pilate brings Jesus before the crowd. No better way to rouse the rabble to call for crucifixion! What a great storytelling move by the filmmakers!
1. To those nostalgic for the days when nobody had Cable TV and the only programming on network channels during Holy Week could be summed up in the four words "Charlton Heston Movie Marathon" . . . Yes, this is a decent Holy Week film--but Ben-Hur is still the best!
Image Sources: a) The Greatest Story Ever Told DVD, b) Max von Sydow as Jesus, c) Jim Caviezel as Jesus, d) Ben-Hur DVD