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NO REAL THING

The image of Max von Sydow as Christ in George Stevens The Greatest Story Ever Told is storybook perfection—the epitome of iconolatry. Delivering the epistemic homilies, platitudes and epigrams with artful clarity, hes the souvenir essence of Michelangelo or Raphael. (White Christians are mollified by his appearance; they probably wouldnt be able to handle the realities of Christs ethnicity as suggested by The Discovery Channels misnomered “Jesus: The Complete Story,” or the Popular Mechanics cover depicting what a real Christ might have looked like.) The seamless Cinerama hugeness is meant to magnify the mythology; Stevens and cinematographers William C. Mellor and Loyal Griggs fuse reverence with general skepticism by using nature as bond, with the magnificent American west panoramas—like colored Ansel Adams—as faith enhancers. (Alternately there are darkly-lit granite-filled compositions as mood depressors.) For those whove never seen Greatest Story on the big screen, or have seen only the dreadful pan & scan version on television, about the closest you can ever hope to get to the giant Sierra Club sweep experience is to see it letterboxed and without interruption. But is Greatest Story a good movie? Extracting the non-garish visuals, which include intentionally drab color-coordinated robes with sporadic flashes of red and harlot green, and Von Sydows undeniable earnestness, and the two Herods Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer as the outstanding guest stars, no; the epic is glittered with too many guests—Charlton Heston lumberjacks John the Baptist, Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene (Stevens wanted Elizabeth Taylor) very distracting to foofs because she looks more like Karen Black than Karen Black, and theres Sidney, and John, and Pat Boone, and theres Telly, and, oh, no, theres Shelley too! And the whole things over-the-top depressingly reverential via Verdis Messa di Requiem and indulgently long, though the version shown on TCM is said to be the original roadshow presentation and most assuredly I can report it is not. At least forty minutes are missing and have been since the initial weeks of the reserved seats engagement. (The relative few who saw the complete 4 hr. 20 min. “premiere” version still talk about hearing the extended dropping of those thirty coins on the soundtrack.) Von Sydow called the picture “a moving failure” and Stevens, after all the calamities and travails endured, likewise acknowledged it was a disappointment. But he also said that he if had the opportunity to remake it, hed make the same film. An on-going controversy: Stevens insisted on not using all of Alfred Newmans score written expressly for the picture and instead used a large portion of Newmans music from The Robe. But not without sparking virtual war: according to Oscar-winning musical adapter Ken Darbys 1992 Scarecrow Press book Hollywood Holyland: The Filming and Scoring of TGSET, battles erupted over not only the length and subsequent cuts of the epic but also over Stevens ill-advised decisions to mangle up or discard most of Newmans original compositions, including a chorus piece supervised by Darby that was yanked in favor of Handels Messiah. So infuriated was Newman that he tried but failed to remove his name from the credits. (Whats implicit is that Stevens slipped into an excessively gloomy evangelicalism.) The painted glass shots become exaggeratedly phony when magnified; Herod Antipass intimate elite guards look as if they had been swept from a gay leather bar; and there are those annoying flashing mirrors subbing for watery aureoles circling Maxs face. Without credit Jean Negulesco and David Lean were asked to direct segments, the latter said to have helmed the Rains and some Ferrer scenes. In addition to purchasing the beautiful drenched-in-black souvenir booklet, patrons could also buy packets of huge color stills. A box office failure. Oscar nominations to Mellor (who died on set after suffering a heart attack) and Griggs for color cinematography; to Newman for musical score—substantially original; to Vittorio Nino Novarese and Marjorie Best for color costumes; to J. McMillian for special visual effects; for color art direction-set decoration. Named one of the worst movies of its year by the Harvard Lampoon, and also winning its Please-Dont-Put-Us-Through-DeMille-Again Award. Filmed in Ultra-Panavision 70, though for the first three days of filming, 3 strip Cinerama was used. Stevens had always been thinking big: in 1960 there were trade ads promoting his vision in TODD AO, a bit later and inexplicably in CinemaScope 55. A top candidate for a complete restoration using the under-utilized SmileBox technology.

Who's who: Von Sydow (Jesus), Michael Anderson Jr. (James the Younger), Michael Ansara (Herod's commander), Carroll Baker (Veronica), Ina Balin (Martha of Bethany), Robert Blake (Simon the Zealot), Pat Boone (Angel at the Tomb), Victor Buono (Sorak), John Considine (John), Richard Conte (Barabbas), Philip Coolidge (Chuza), Cyril Delevanti (Melchior), Joanna Dunham (Mary Magdalene), Jamie Farr (Thaddaeus), José Ferrer (Herod Antipas), David Hedison (Philip), Van Heflin (Bar Amand), Charlton Heston (John the Baptist), Martin Landau (Caiaphas), Angela Lansbury (Claudia), Robert Loggia (Joseph), John Lupton (Speaker of Capernaum), Janet Margolin (Mary of Bethany), David McCallum (Judas Iscariot), Roddy McDowall (Matthew), Dorothy McGuire (The Virgin Mary), Sal Mineo (Uriah), Nehemiah Persoff (Shemiah), Donald Pleasence (Satan), Sidney Poitier (Simon of Cyrene), Claude Rains (King Herod), Gary Raymond (Peter), Telly Savalas (Pontius Pilate), Joseph Schildkraut (Nicodemus), Marian Seldes (Herodias), Paul Stewart (Questor), Harold J. Stone (Gen. Varus), John Wayne (Centurion at crucifixion), Shelley Winters (Woman who is healed), Ed Wynn (Old Aram).

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.