The Big Guy
If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.
Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.
The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.
Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.
(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~
“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.
“More awe, John!”
The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.
Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.
Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.
Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.
It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.
Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.
The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.
TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile –
“What’s your name?”
“Jesus. That’s a good name.”
Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door –
“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”
“But it was me.”
But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.
Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)
Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).
At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.
As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.
KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers, the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.
TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.
As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…
Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.
Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…