This four-and-a-half-hour (!) film (critics dubbed it The Longest Story Ever Told) begins in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BC.
Told by three magi that a new king has been born in Bethlehem, Herod (José Ferrer) orders a massacre of local children, sending black-clad horsemen to charge with drawn spears on a playground full of wide-eyed infants.
Jesus (Max von Sydow) survives the purge, and we rejoin him at the age of about 30 when he is tempted by a mean old hermit (Donald Pleasence): “How’d you like to be the ruler of all this, hmm?” the hermit asks (indicating the Arizona landscape which is doubling as Palestine for the film).
Those familiar with the gospels will gather that the hermit is supposed to be Satan trying to turn Jesus away from God. Those not familiar may be quite confused as to why Jesus is hanging around in the desert with a random troglodyte.
Jesus heals a few of the sick, but the supernatural side of the miracles is played down. They’re depicted as if they could be mainly the result of his charisma. Lazarus is raised from the dead in a long shot, so you can’t really see what’s going on. The feeding of the 5,000 and turning water into wine are mentioned, but not shown.
When The Greatest Story Ever Told was released, there was criticism of its parade of cameos by famous actors. Some appearances still raise a giggle, including Charlton Heston as a shouty and bouffanted John the Baptist, and Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (he was cast as Kojak years after making this film, but it’s still difficult to watch this without expecting him to drawl to Barabbas: “Who loves ya, baby?”).
The most infamous cameo is that of John Wayne as the centurion at the crucifixion. Drenched in unconvincing fake rain and grimly clutching a wooden sword, Wayne deadpans: “Truly, this man was the Saaahn of Gaaaahd.”
Whether or not you believe that the life of Jesus is the greatest story ever told, it has captivated millions of people for over 2,000 years and exerted a massive influence on world history. Somehow, though, the filmmakers managed to turn this profound source material into a movie less well-told than Dude, Where’s My Car? and longer than all four gospels put together.
The movie was shot in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. Pyramid Lake in Nevada represented the Sea of Galilee, Lake Moab in Utah was used to film the sermon on the mount, and California’s Death Valley was the setting of Jesus’ 40-day journey into the wilderness. 47 sets were constructed, both on-location and in Hollywood studios.
Max von Sydow
James the Younger
Michael Anderson Jr.
Martha of Bethany
Angel at the Tomb
John the Baptist
Mary of Bethany
The Virgin Mary
The Dark Hermit (Satan)
Simon of Cyrene
Centurion at Crucifixion
Woman Who Is Healed
Simon the Zealot
James the Elder
Joseph of Arimathaea
Harold J. Stone