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"The Greatest Story Ever Told" (Blu-ray) - Reviewed by Chris Eberle

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Synopsis

This 1965 epic recreates the whole of Jesus’ life as told in the New Testament.  Beginning with his birth in Bethlehem, the film portrays every major event from his baptism, the gathering of the Apostles, his return to Jerusalem, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.  We see in poignant detail how Jesus touched the lives of an entire people through acts of kindness and a powerful message.  The politics of the time are portrayed too as we step inside King Herod’s court, the office of Pontius Pilate and the chambers of the Hebrew elders who ultimately delivered The Messiah to his death.  Though many films have been made about the life of Jesus Christ, none has delivered this level of detail.

Specifications

  • MGM
  • 1965, Color, Rated G, 3 Hr 19 min
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.75:1
  • Codec: AVC
  • 1080p
  • English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Starring:  Max von Sydow, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Charlton Heston
  • Directed by George Stevens
Rating
  • Entertainment:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Extras:
  • Violence: Minimal
  • Sex: No
  • Language: No

Commentary

When I saw the length of this movie and its five Oscar nominations, I expected something on the level of The Ten Commandments.  What I got was a very drawn-out and somber account of the New Testament.  The film meanders from scene to scene without any real build to the bigger moments.  Things finally pick up after about two hours when Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus.  The sequence of his arrest and eventual execution is much more intense than the rest of the film.

My favorite part of watching this movie was looking for all the famous actors in the cast.  During the opening credits, which scroll slowly enough to actually read carefully, there are dozens of A-listers credited.  Some notables include John Wayne as a Roman centurion, Mark Lenard, better known as Sarek in the Star Trek franchise, Claude Raines as King Herod, Roddy McDowall and Jamie Farr as Apostles; the list goes on and on.  I even recognized Russell Johnson, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.  I made a sort of game of it.  You don’t see John Wayne until the 3:09 mark but trust me; his moment of camp is worth the wait!  Director George Stevens tried to make an epic but without any action, drama or even pageantry, it falls flat.  Still for fans of Biblical themes, it’s a must-watch.

Technical

Image quality is another area where my expectations were high.  After all, the film was shot in 70 millimeter – a prime candidate for reference-quality restoration.  The first thing I saw on the screen was a message proclaiming “This disc was mastered from the best available elements.”  This told me what the telecine artists had to work with was not the highest quality print.  The big downer was the film grain.  It was present throughout and at times was so prevalent, it looked like ants crawling on the screen.  The background during Jesus Crucifixion was a mass of black noise instead of the stunning landscape it should have been.  There was a bit of dirt and noticeable flicker during most scenes.  Color was the best part of the transfer.  It was rich and natural at all times and literally saved this Blu-ray from becoming a complete disaster.  Detail was generally soft as you might expect.  Dark scenes became muddy and lacked detail.  Despite the crushing, levels were not as deep as the black bars, a clear error.  By the way, the 2.75:1 aspect ratio is not a typo.  This film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70 and adapted to Cinerama projection.  I can only imagine in 1965 this must have been like IMAX is today.

The DTS-HD Master Audio encode was superb; among the best I’ve heard in a vintage film.  Though the original track is mono, the engineers did a marvelous job converting it to 5.1 surround.  The LFE isn’t used much but the surround speakers are employed to expand the music soundstage and increase the sonic envelope created by ambient effects.  Detail is superb in the many quiet scenes.  Dialog is super-clean and even pans across the front soundstage at times.  The music is among the best I’ve heard in any film.  During the opening, I was convinced it was the work of Alan Hovhaness but it’s actually from legendary film composer Alfred Newman.  Newman’s achievements are considerable.  He won nine Oscars, second only to Walt Disney.  His nominations total 45, a record shared by John Williams.  He scored for over 200 films and is considered the father of modern film music.  Many scenes have minimal sound effects and are instead propelled by this beautiful and elegant score.

Extras

Bonus features include interviews with several surviving actors, a making-of documentary from 1965, a deleted scene and the original theatrical trailer.