When George Steven’s massive roadshow production The Greatest Story Ever Told premiered at the Warner Cinerama in February 15, 1965 it was met with mixed reviews and, eventually, less than satisfactory box office. Filmed over an 8 month period from October 1962 through August 1963, it was an extremely troubled production that went over schedule, over budget and landed up costing between 18 and 20 million dollars but wound up bringing in only 8 million in rentals losing United Artist over thirteen million dollars. Many believe THE GREATEST STORY’S disappointing showing precipitated George Steven’s decline as a major American film maker. In the years that followed THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD was dismissed as a beautifully photographed but emotionally disengaging telling of the Christ story.
Unlike many who now write about the film, I was fortunate enough to see THE GREATEST STORY four times during its original 1965 roadshow release when it was presented in Cinerama—not to be confused with photographed in Cinerama – at the Warner Cinerama theater where the film had its world premiere. Shot in Ultra-Panavision 70 and using an anamorphic lens on a 65MM negative the process gave the screen the same width as a Cinerama image. In contrast to the film’s lack-luster reputation, I found THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD to be—what I like to call—a total cinematic experiences. In fact, it was one greatest that I have ever experienced in a movie theater. But more on that later. I want to get some basic information down first.
The length. Over the years The Greatest Story Ever Told was shown in four versions: 4 hours and 20 minutes before release, premiere version at 3 hour 41 minute (Excluding overture, Intermission and exit music), a 3hour 19 minute cut prepared a short time later and finally, a two hour 21 minute version that went into general release. I saw both the 3 hour 41 minute version and the three hour 15 minute version but, more importantly, I saw them on that super Cinerama screen. Again, more on that later.
United Artists did not order Stevens to trim his movie. They may have asked but they didn’t have the authority. George Stevens was one of the few directors in the 1960s who had final cut. He had that right since 1948 and “I Remember Mama.” The trims made after the film was first released, and while still in roadshow, were made by Stevens in an effort improve the film’s pacing and sharpen its focus so that it would work better with an audience. Both Kubrick and David Lean—directors who also had final cut—did exactly the same thing respectively with 2001 in 1968 and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO in 1965. They were both cut by nearly 20 minutes. As for the 2 hour 41 minute general release version, regarding THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK which also played roadshow, for general release Stevens had taken a 30 minutes so out so I am presuming that he also prepared that print.
A week following the film’s premiere on February 15, 1965 I saw the 3 hour 41 minute version at the Warner Cinerama Theater. Sitting in the lodges, first row center, I thought the pacing off and, finding that the film “dragged,” I thought it boring and like many others, especially the critics, was disappointed. I saw it again the following summer at its (2001 “restored”) 3H 19m length. In other words Sevens had taken out 20 or so minutes. The cutting made all the difference. At 3H and 19 minutes THE GREATEST STORY flowed and the criticism I had levied at the film at 3H 41 Min evaporated. The cuts consisted mostly of shortening and trimming shots and the elimination of some others throughout the film.
The restoration. In 2001 at a cost of $500,000 the film was restored to this 3h 19m length and a new 65mm inter-positive was struck off the 65mm camera negative. This version then went into theatrical release replacing the 2 hour 21 version which had been in circulation since 1966. In is original Ultra Panavision 70 2.75:1 aspect ratio and in six-track stereo the film appeared on DVD in 2001 and Blu-ray ten years later. (Of note, it had been available in a pan and scan VHS since 1984 at 3H 16 minutes.)
One trim I remember very clearly. It occurs early in the film. In the February version a deserted road comes on screen heading up to a rise. Suddenly, a column of Roman soldiers are heard and then, six abreast, appear at the rise carrying battle gear. They continue marching straight towards the camera. The shot holds until after the first few rows of solders have marched past the camera and only then the shot dissolved to the next scene. In the 3H 19M minute version the soldiers are already marching over the rise and before they reach the camera there is a very long dissolve into the next scene. The same sort of thing occurs during the “heal me” sequence where the pressing crowd force Jesus to walk onto a dock. The shots of the crowd facing the screen screaming “heal Me” and Jesus standing on the dock were both trimmed a few seconds. And in the February version Carole Baker had two close ups. In the version I saw in the summer she had only one close-up. I didn’t remember if any complete scenes were cut, rather scenes were merely shortened. In this way that Stevens reduced the film by 22 minutes to a cut that I thought then and, do now, worked.
The Saturday before the film was scheduled to close (Sunday) I saw it again. This was in in December, and as the Warner Cinerama Theater was scheduled to premiere BATTLE OF THE BULGE—Warner Brothers’ big Christmas release—the following Wednesday it would be my last chance to see the film on a Cinerama screen. The theater was practically empty.
When I saw the film that Saturday I didn’t sit up in the Loge. I sat first row center where I was surrounded by Cinerama’s huge curved screen. I just wasn’t watching the movie, I was literally in the movie. And that is how I saw THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD that December afternoon. That viewing proved a revelation for me and since that the time I make sure to always sit first row center in a movie theater. I believe that is the way a film should be seen. And as THE GREATEST STORY was made to be experienced. Essentially I had seen Steven’s film as he had made it to be seen. He was using some of the greatest visuals ever put on the screen to give the viewer through these images an exalting spiritual experience. In others the words it was through the majesty of Nature that we were to experience the majesty of Jesus and the spiritual message he was giving the world for the first time through his words. And, for me, Stevens succeeded. I found the film so over powering that I told a friend and he and I saw it the next day – the films last at the Warner – and after the showing he agreed with me that it was an incredible experience.
Thus, to really judge GSET one must see it on a very big screen—the biggest possible. On a small TV screen (especially pan & scan) it comes across as an extremely slow film that drags along at a snail’s pace with the Jose Ferrer, Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas sections about the only thing that perks up the film. (I have even seen it in B&W pan & scan and turned it off as it was agonizing to watch—for what the small screen had done to the film and, in turn, how boring it was to watch on that venue.) But the film wasn’t made for a small screen television, it was made for a Cinerama size screen, and in Cinerama the film’s visuals are simply overwhelming. Stevens had never made such a beautiful and visually stunning movie. I believe that they amount to 75 or more percent of the film’s impact. This is the reason why Stevens opted for Ultra-Panavision as it provided him with the biggest screen then available. Much like “2001” which was released three years later (also in Cinerama) GSTET is more about experience than it is about conventional narrative story telling. Stevens was trying something very different from what he had ever done before. He was interested in impact. Sitting in that first row center seat of a Cinerama theater I found the film overpowering. I had never experienced anything quite like it before and few films after that can compare to it in terms of its visual impact and its complete mastery of the visual medium to create that impact. Every shot, every cut, every angle is a painting and is as it should be. The film made me feel that I had been taken to another place and time and, observing the unfolding events, I was there in both body and mind as well as spirit.
When the film went into a two week limited general release the following Easter (1966) it had a running time of 141 minutes. The story of that cut I don’t know about and fortunately I have never seen the film at that length. Of note is that this cut is no longer available as the film, in both theatrical and home video, has been restored to its 3 hour 16 minute road show version with overture, intermission, en-acte’ and exit music.
After I purchased the Blu-Ray which has some problems with the transfer but can be corrected by adjusting the sharpness button to bring down the “sharpens” and eliminating the irritating video-noise. If you have a large screen TV and good sound system you will get, if you sit close, the ‘movie feel’ which is exactly what I did. Sitting two feet in front of a 65 inch DLP screen which, with respect to distance from the screen, simulated the mid-to-rear section of a movie theater and I watched the film from beginning to end. It wasn’t first row center Cinerama but I did get some of the feel that I had gotten in the theater fifty years earlier. I neither found the film boring nor did it drag. Instead, I found it an extremely moving “experience.” Whatever the transfer quality, thank God for Blu-Ray and Big screen TVs.
With regard to the music; it’s one of Alfred Newman best scores. Over Newman’s veto Stevens insisted on using the Handel and Verdi in certain sections but there is a CD available with all of Newman’s original score, even the cues not used in the film. So, you can see which works better. Stevens wanted to use the Handel because he felt audiences could more easily relate to it than something original. And frankly, it works for me. It’s interesting that to a much greater degree the same thing occurred with “2001.” Kubrick opted to drop all of Alex North’s original score and, instead, substitute the guide tracks used while editing the film and in doing so radically changed the way many films are scored today. I have watched the film playing North’s score and let me assure you, Kubrick made absolutely the right decision.
As for the infamous cameos that almost every critic found annoying, today more than a half century after the film was made, their effect is interesting. Stevens cast stars in cameos not only for box office reasons but he felt that their star quality in the years to come—when they were mostly forgotten—would give these small parts a lasting power. What Stevens didn’t take into consideration was both television and home video where these stars are still stars and have not faded away. So seeing John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Pat Boone, Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, et. al., is still distracting but as with my viewings back in 1965, once I get used to it, it isn’t much of a bother. Also, several of the stars specifically; Shelly, Winters, Carol Baker, Van Heflin, Joseph Schildraut (his last film), Ed Wynn and even Sal Mineo had either begun their careers with Stevens or had done some of their best work with him and so, wanted to appear in what Stevens believed would be his masterpiece and summation of his career 35 year career.
The size and importance of THE GREATEST STORY are today almost entirely forgotten. It was a big film that was covered extensively in the media and opened at a major Broadway house where it dominated the Broadway landscape for almost a year. So, to try and give readers an Idea of what the film was like when it I saw it, in the next few posts I am going to go back in time and try to re-create how the film was looked upon when it opened and, more specifically, when I saw it.