Making the Grades
Who is Jesus Christ? A mere man? A great teacher? The promised Messiah? Whatever your answer, He is significant enough that His birth divides our recording of time.
To filmmaker George Stevens, the account of Christ's life as found in the New Testament was The Greatest Story Ever Told. So, after extensive research and a trip to The Holy Land, this producer/director took his personal passion for the subject and set out "Simply to do the story of Jesus," with "no interruption for theatrical embroideries."
A noble but truly impossible goal, because artistic license was unavoidable in every decision from casting the role of Jesus, to making a movie-suitable story out of the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). While the script suffers from occasional choppiness, those familiar with the scriptures will be most disappointed by its many inaccuracies, like the combining of characters (Lazarus with the rich man who could not sell his possessions and follow the Master), the invention of others (a blind man from Nazareth for instance), and the changing of facts (hanging is the documented method of Judas' death, not the one depicted).
Yet Stevens' reverent intentions cannot be questioned. Taking inspiration from the paintings and music of such masters as da Vinci (The Last Supper) and Handel (The Messiah), he carefully crafts this Ultra Wide film using the silver screen as canvas. The grandeur of his cinematic art is evident in his ability to compose each scene emphasizing the message with dramatic vistas and geological features (which he found in the American Southwest, not the Middle East).
The lavishly budgeted epic drew enthusiasm from many of Hollywood's biggest stars, who wished to be associated with the picture in any way. Movie buffs may enjoy identifying their cameo appearances in what might be more aptly called, The Greatest Cast Call Ever Filmed. Wanting to avoid preconceived character identification, Stevens choose a then unknown actor (Max von Sydow) to play the lead, and used his anonymity to provided increased curiosity over the production.
Despite all the attention, The Greatest Story Ever Told did not receive the critical acclaim Stevens had hoped for. What was its fatal flaw? In an interview included on the DVD release, Charlton Heston, who played John the Baptist, points out that everyone has an opinion of who Christ is, and what place he holds in history. "No one can fulfill all those deeply held convictions." Max von Sydow adds that people are sure to be offended by any portrayal that doesn't match their own, sighting having to choose between the Catholic or Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer as an example.
Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this film may be its ability to start a family discussion about your view of this important figure. Keep in mind that the movie contains non-gratuitous reenactments of some of the many brutal acts associated with Jesus' life. And like any historical dramatization, don't forget the book upon which the movie is based. For those looking for a definitive biography, The Bible is still the best source for The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Greatest Story Ever Told.
This film assumes its audience is familiar with the New Testament (for instance, no explanation is given for Pilot washing his hands after sentencing Christ). At the time it was produced, Bible stories were read in schools, and a greater percentage of the population attended church regularly. Do you think the general public knew more about Jesus in 1965 than they do today?
To explain the impact artistic interpretation can have on what is communicated, your family might have fun trying out the following exercise: Read the two identical sentences, changing only the inflection, by placing emphasis on the underlined word.
1) Let’s eat Mom, I’m hungry.
2) Let’s eat Mom, I’m hungry.
If you’re interested in another film with an Easter theme, check our review of The Robe—the story of a Roman centurion assigned to oversee the crucifixion of Christ.