George Stevens' Passionate Play --- Part One
I’d long been promised an ordeal should I ever try sitting through The Greatest Story Ever Told. Its reputation was that of most failed among Sunday School roadshows, a bore of … well, biblical dimensions. Last week the MGM channel played TGSET in High-Definition. My time and test had come. Lest anyone think I propose dumping on George Stevens’ epic, let me say straight off that to my mind, it’s outstanding, and that appreciating The Greatest Story Ever Told has everything to do with presentation. First of all, without a really big screen, you can’t even read the credits (specifically designed for Cinerama delivery). Mine is fourteen feet across and those titles are still a strain. Watching TGSET flat or even in 35mm is pure misuse of time. You’d be better off to miss it altogether. Some will say that's a good idea in any case. For whatever truncated opportunity they’ve had to see it over the last forty-five years, I can’t blame them. There’ll probably never be enough money or interest in a serious restoration of the film as Stevens envisioned it, though I guess that unhappy circumstance is no worse for most 50’s-60’s roadshows gone to ruin since. MGM-HD has become a sort of elephantine graveyard for discredited epics. They own the United Artists library, and UA handled a lot of beached whales during a widescreen’s heyday. You can see Khartoum there most months, and it’s stunning. Also The Pride and The Passion, Hawaii, and others. HD really levels the playing field for all these. You may not be persuaded that they’re good, but neither would you be likely to come away with the sour aftertaste of prior televised broadcasts.
One could almost call The Greatest Story Ever Told an art film were it not for the parade of stars in roles major and miniscule. So much of Stevens’ film is resolutely anti-Hollywood. Had he led with Max Von Sydow and a minor cast in support, we’d have had a Jesus story along lines European directors might have told. To that sensibility, and in 1965 when art cinema was near a fashion’s peak, TGSET missed its chance at becoming a real critic’s darling. John Wayne horning in on the Crucifixion was the film’s own Golgotha, however. From a first sight of him and the New Testament Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World preceding, there was little chance of reviewers heaping anything other than ridicule upon Stevens and the project he expended nearly a decade of his life realizing. The Greatest Story Ever Told generated some of the snidest notices on record, another of those occasions when critics felled a wounded ox and went about demonstrating how cleverly they could gore it. There was derision over running time (initially 225 minutes), so United Artists handed Stevens a choice: Either you cut it, or we will. Analysts said TGSET was the most expensive film yet produced in the United States, and resentment flowed too from that. Slick magazines had promised the moon, so knives were sharpened from premiere night. It was The Greatest Disaster United Artists Ever Had as of 1965, and that’s mostly what we remember about the show now. George Stevens’ name came off bankable rolls as a consequence and he’d never be entrusted with such extravagant resources again.
Daryl Zanuck had purchased rights in 1954 to Fulton Oursler’s book, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which remained a paperback evergreen from initial 1949 publication. It seemed a natural to follow up on success of The Robe. Besides, no one in the US had yet attempted a talking dramatization on the life of Christ. George Stevens took an interest and started negotiations to produce and direct. His fee would be a historic million dollars, unheard of for anyone behind the camera. It was November 1958 before final contracts were signed. Stevens wanted and got control few others could bring to term, this achievable following a three-punch of A Place In The Sun, Shane, and Giant, each long-runners and all profitable. Stevens was a physically imposing man whose judgment no one questioned (sturdily built … square-jawed, said The New York Times). He'd regularly (and publicly) let fly on moguls too obtuse to realize this director knew best. The plan was for Stevens to get his script ready through 1959 and begin shooting in 1960. In the meantime, he’d pilot The Diary Of Anne Frank, also for Fox release. Maybe this was too much heaped on a plate, for delay and anticipation brought others to the Holy table from which Stevens hoped to sup. Metro had gone ahead with King Of Kings by mid-1960, and August of that year brought announcement of producer Ray Stark’s The Young Christ, a three million-dollar venture to be filmed in 3-D and possibly star Robert Wagner as Jesus. Stevens had to somehow keep kettles boiling on The Greatest Story Ever Told even as 1960 passed without cameras rolling.
Cast announcements were one way of maintaining interest. John Wayne and Sidney Poitier were committed as of October 1960. Trade ads (as shown here) with Wayne appeared that year. Elizabeth Taylor was rumored for Mary Magdalene, while Marlon Brando mulled possibilities of essaying Judas. Spencer Tracy meanwhile held promise for a swell Pontius Pilate. Against said glittering constellation (which financing Fox encouraged), George Stevens got more press than if he’d already finished TGSET. There was an appearance with son George Jr. (named the film’s associate producer) on Person To Person, wherein the director lent professorial authority to explanation of the Gospels and how he’d dramatize them. For many observers, Stevens’ own integrity as a picture maker was Greatest Story’s most valued asset. His quiet indifference to the hectoring of budget-watchers and script-kibitzers has won this square-jawed (that again!) director the nickname of "Great Stoneface," said admiring Hollywood correspondent Murray Schumach, whose dispatches gave full vent to Stevens as artist first and foremost, indeed one of few the town could boast. Prestige was further enhanced by the addition of Carl Sandburg to Greatest Story’s screenwriting team. He was credited as a consultant, but Sandburg was toiling away daily at script conferences with Stevens and co-scribes. Above everything, Stevens wanted a Christ story not to be confused with excesses of DeMille and other Hollywood chariot-racers: I want it told simply, without embellishments. We want to make a picture that will be alive fifty years from now.
Others of Greatest Story’s company sought distance from Biblical movie artifice. Max Von Sydow was lined up for Jesus in late February 1961. That got respect Jeffrey Hunter missed when MGM signed him to play their King Of Kings (often referred to thereafter as I Was A Teenage Jesus). Von Sydow exemplified Euro resistance to Golly-wood toga parties gone before: I thought with horror of Cecil B. DeMille and such things as "Samson and Delilah" and "The Ten Commandments." But when I saw the script, I decided that the role of Jesus is absolutely not a religious cliché. Was Stevens getting boxed in by his own seriousness of purpose? After all, merchants in filmland temples were still counting dollars pouring forth from The Ten Commandments (just then enjoying its first reissue) and no one made so persuasive a commercial role model as DeMille. Maybe Fox saw writing on Jerusalem walls, for by September 1961, they were pulling out. Three million had been spent without a frame exposed. Calling it an indefinite postponement, 20th president Spyros Skouras withheld reasons as to why, but a previous year’s $13 million studio loss undoubtedly entered into the decision, plus fact they were knee-deep in The Longest Day and Cleopatra, two enormously expensive projects. Competing King Of Kings would also be released the following month. Either way, Stevens was incensed and went to the mat against Wall Street powers interfering with the creative aspects of moviemaking. He assured a news conference that The Greatest Story Ever Told would be made in spite of Fox’s faltering and timidity. Monies the company had advanced would be repaid out of the film’s eventual profits. Stevens projected a $6.5 million budget toward completion sometime in 1962. That was the third year deadline he’d announced, and the third (but not the last) he’d miss.