Through the centuries the story of Jesus of Nazareth has had a tremendous impact on the art forms. Some of the world's most sublime music, many priceless paintings and sculptures, and a wealth of fine literature were inspired by a life which began in a stable at Bethlehem and ended on a cross on Golgotha. Great cathedrals, with their magnificent stained-glass windows and their treasured symbols of faith, stand as eloquent testimonials to the man whose words and deeds so changed the course of civilization that the history of mankind is divided into two eras—before Christ and after Christ.
Motion-picture producers have been reluctant to attempt to translate the life of Christ to the screen. Several years ago George Stevens, a veteran producer and director, undertook the challenging task of filming Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told. Mr. Stevens knew full well that any film based on the Bible—especially a drama which purports to portray the life of Christ—is sure to be highly controversial.
At the very outset the well-known director said that he was determined to avoid the errors and distortions that characterized earlier attempts to dramatize the coming and the ministry of the long-awaited Messiah. In The Greatest Story Ever Told (Cinerama, United Artists) he hoped to create a film which would be accepted as definitive and "would still be shown" in the year of our Lord 2000. Has he succeeded? It is entirely possible that this picture may still be shown at the beginning of the 21st century, but in my opinion Mr. Stevens has not given us a definitive portrait of Christ.
I realize that reaction and response to a religious film tend to be subjective. I can merely point to the things which I found not only disappointing but in some instances disturbing. There are errors, distortions, and, in some cases, curious omissions in the screenplay. Often the omissions alter the meaning of, or completely nullify, the significance of the action on the screen. Much of the invented dialog is awkward and commonplace. The appearance of so many film celebrities in bit parts is distracting and cheaply theatrical; it detracts from the solemnity and authenticity of the picture.
Pictorially the film is magnificent. But here again one must question Mr. Stevens' decision to make The Greatest Story Ever Told in Utah and Arizona instead of in Palestine. Photographed in Ultra Panivision 70 and Technicolor, the towering grandeur of our great west becomes a vast canvas — a backdrop so overwhelming that it dwarfs and overshadows the players. In defending his choice of locale Mr. Stevens said, "I saw the story in a concept of physical grandeur." No one will dispute the "physical grandeur" of the picture. But it seems to me that this has been achieved at the expense of warmth, intimacy, and the full impact of the personalities of the principals in the drama.
Having stated this side of the case, I hasten to report that the picture also has moments of beauty, poignancy, and compelling drama. Max von Sydow acquits himself with distinction in the taxing role of the Christ, even though he has not fully captured the warmth, the humanity, and the magnetism which drew multitudes to the Teacher and Preacher from Galilee and won for Him many devoted followers. Others among the principals are excellent, and the crowd and mob scenes are handled with skill and dexterity.
Someday a really definitive film about Christ may be made. If it is, I dare say that it will be made by a director who has the sensitivity to understand that it takes something more than a big budget, a big screen, big-name players, and big everything to tell the story of a simple man and His message of love, justice, and peace. After all, these are things of the heart and spirit; they cannot be written into a cost sheet.
Here are two films which offer us a fascinating study in contrasts. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Allied Film Makers, Robert Aldrich) is a penetrating study of a neurotic woman and her meek, self-effacing husband; and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (20th Century-Fox, Bryan Forbes) is a preposterous concoction of violence, horror, and gore. Seance, an English film, is noteworthy for the superb acting of Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough as well as for the masterful manner in which Richard Aldrich makes use of drab black-and-white settings and seemingly quiet and ordinary men and women to create and sustain an aura of suspense—qualities that are completely lacking in its gaudy and flashy American counterpart, Hush . . . Hush. I know, of course, that Hush . . . Hush is supposed to be "just for laughs." But who's laughing—other than those who "laugh all the way to the bank?" Films of this type have nothing to recommend them to any intelligent person.
Here are other recent releases: Strange Bedfellows (Universal), a tasteless bit of froth; Love Has Many Faces (Columbia), which attempts to convey a serious message but fails to do so; and Those Galloways (Buena Vista), a Disney film which tends to become cloying.
I dare say that almost every American was an invisible passenger in Gemini 3 at lift-off from Cape Kennedy on March 23. And who was not fascinated by the achievements of Ranger 9 or, for all that, by the Russian cosmonaut's spectacular walk in space? Would anyone really still turn up his nose at that "monster in the living-room?"