The Greatest Story Ever Told (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

March 31, 2011 by  

George Steven’s magnificent biblical epic comes to Blu-ray.  Featuring an all-star cast with many cameo appearances, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a true classic!

Images courtesy of © 1965 George Stevens Production. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Greatest Story Ever Told


DURATION: 199 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, Widescreen (2:75:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish Dolby Durround, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, AVC@24MBPS, Subtitles: English SDH, French

COMPANY: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/20th Century Fox


RELEASE DATE: March 29, 2011

Directed by George Stevens, David Lean, Jean Negulesco

Based on the book by Fulton Oursler

Source Writings by Henry Denker

Screenplay by James Lee Barrett, George Stevens

Producer: George Stevens

Executive Producer: Frank I. Davis

Associate Producer: George Stevens Jr., Antonio Vellani

Music by Alfred Newman

Cinematography by Loyal Griggs, William C. Mellor

Edited by Harold F. Kress, Argyle Nelson Jr., J. Frank O’Neill

Casting by Lynn Stalmaster

Art Direction by William J. Creber, Richard Day, David S. Hall

Set Decoration by Fred M. Maclean, Ray Moyer, Norman Rockett

Costume Design by Marjorie Best, Vittorio Nino Novarese


Max von Sydow as Jesus

Michael Anderson Jr. as James the Younger

Carroll Baker as Veronica

Ina Balin as Martha of Bethany

Victor Buono as Sorak

Richard Conte as Barabbas

Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene

Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas

Van Heflin as Bar Amand

Charlton Heston as John the Baptist

Martin Landau as Caiaphas

Angela Lansbury as Claudia

Pat Boone as Angel at the Tomb

Janet Margolin as Mary of Bethany

David McCallum as Judas Iscariot

Roddy McDowall as Matthew

Dorothy Mcguire as The Virgin Mary

Sal Mineo as Uriah

Nehemia Persoff as Shemiah

Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene

Claude Rains as King HErod

Donald Pleasence as The Dark Hermit-Satan

Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate

John Wayne as Centurion at Crucifixion

Shelley Winters as Woman who is Healed

Ed Wynn as Old Aram

“A magnificent film” (New York Daily News), this glorious epic is an inspiring, grand-scale recreation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from His humble birth and teachings to his crucifixion and ultimate Resurrection.  Lavishly produced at the cost of $20 million – an enormous amount for the time – and honored with five 1965 Academy Award Nominations, this exceptional motion picture is exquisitely beautiful.  Now presented in its original theatrical brilliance with intermission and overture, it is truly The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In 1965, director George Stevens (“Shane”, “Giant”, “A Place in the Sun”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”) would work on a film based on Jesus Christ’s life.  But unlike many other movies that featured Jesus Chris, Stevens wanted to create a film with no embellishments.  A film that would focus on the story of Jesus Christ from the Nativity through the Resurrection and make sure it is a film that would never be duplicated.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told” originated as a U.S. radio series back in 1947 inspired by the Gospels.  In 1949, Fulton Oursler, senior editor of the “Reader’s Digest” would go on to create a novel adaptation based on the radio series and Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox would acquire the film rights to the novel shortly after the publication of Oursler’s novel.

When Stevens, who was producing and directing “The Diary of Anne Frank” back in 1958, he found out about how the studio owned the property to “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and created a company in order to make a film adaptation.  And thus a screenplay was created by Stevens and James Lee Barrett.

The screenplay took years to create and Stevens and crew would do extensive research including going to the Holy Land to look for locations to film and also going to the Vatican and getting advice from Pope John XVII.  But because of  the rising costs of pre-production without any shooting, 20th Century Fox withdrew from the project and Stevens was given two years to find a studio or 20th Century Fox would reclaim the rights.  Fortunately, United Artists came in and filming began in Arizona, Nevada and Utah and the biblical epic would feature an all-star cast which includes Max von Sydow playing Jesus, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Martin Landau as Caiaphas, Angela Lansbury as Claudia, Pat Boone as Angel at the Tomb, Roddy McDowell as Matthew,  Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, John Wayne as Centurion at Crucifixion, Robert Blake as Simon the Zealot, Shelly Winters as the woman who is healed and many more.

The original running time of the film was 4 hrs. and 20 minutes and eventually the film was revised several times and would end up at 199 minutes.  Due to its long duration and the fact that it deals with religion, as expected, the film was split when it came to reviews from the critics.  Also, with a budget of $20 million, unfortunately the film was unable to break even at the time and would prevent biblical epics from being created in Hollywood for many years.

The film was still acknowledged and nominated for five Academy Awards including “Best Cinematography” and “Costume Design” and now this film will receive its first release in HD on Blu-ray.


“The Greatest Story Ever Told” is presented in 1080p High Definition (widescreen 2:75:1).  Unfortunately the film has aged quite a bit and there are artifacts, haloing, noise, flickering and crush that can be seen on the video.  Granted, although this may push videophiles away, for most people, especially those looking to watch this biblical epic during Easter, there is quite a bit of detail in the close ups and at times, the color is good and there a good amount of grain.

But the fact is that the transfer is based on the best available elements, so there is not much that can be done.  Things do look a bit murky but the picture quality is much better than its 2001 DVD counterpart.


“The Greatest Story Ever Told” is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish Dolby Surround and French 5.1 Dolby Digital.  The film is primarily center and front channel driven, it’s not a very immersive soundtrack but while dialogue is clear and understandable, probably the main audio that does stick out for this film and sounds great via lossless is the music composition by Alfred Newman (known for his wonderful work on “South Pacific” and “The King and I”.

I didn’t really catch that much coming from the surround channels, including moments where there were crowds.  Outside of the music, the only sound that really captured my attention was the lightning during the crucifixion scene but that’s about it.  If anything, the lossless soundtrack is adequate for this film but I was hoping to hear more use of the surround channels especially since the film utilizes thousands of extras and potential for a lot of ambiance-driven scenes that would have been perfect for the surround channels.

Subtitles are in English SDH and French.


“The Greatest Story Ever Told” comes with the following special features:

  • He Walks in Beauty Documentary– (14:57) The cast and crew talk about how they enjoyed working with George Stevens, talk about where the film was shot, the cast and more.
  • Filmmaker Documentary – (27:38) A biography of George Stevens career created by his son George Stevens Jr.  The biography goes into George Stevens working on “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and the research that was done.  Cast and crew lend their feelings of what they enjoyed about working with George Stevens.
  • Deleted Scene – (2:29) The alternate version of the Via Dolorosa scene.
  • Theatrical Trailer – (3:32) The original theatrical trailer for “The Greatest Story Ever Told”

George Steven’s magnificent biblical epic comes to Blu-ray.  Featuring an all-star cast with many cameo appearances, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a true classic!

Growing up, my household from both sides of my parents family, Easter vacation featured a lot of watching of biblical epics and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was one of those epics that I watched along with my family.

And despite going to bible school and growing up with a strong Christian background as a child, watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, I’m not a compleat viewer of biblical epics to know how accurate this film is to the bible but for so many years, I have heard that “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was the best film on Jesus Christ and how the reverential film captured the life of Jesus Christ.  And of course, to know how much time and effort in the research conducted by George Stevens and crew before making this film, I never question it but I’m sure there are many of those who have.

And for one thing, I’m not going to get into any discussion if this biblical film is better than this or that biblical epic or how it compares to a more modern depiction of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion such as in “The Passion of the Christ”.  Because everyone watches biblical epics differently.  Some who are wanting to celebrate the life of the Lord, some who watch it for the sheer number of talent that have cameos in the film and some who watch it because it’s that time of the year and it’s what many families do during the Easter holiday to remember how Christ died for our sins.

In fact, I can easily remember as a child watching this every year, not because we were forced too but because it was on and my family watched it, in some ways, I thought it was part of family tradition to watch this film and other biblical epics during Easter vacation.

And simply, when it comes to biblical epics, you either enjoy them or dislike them and whether or not you feel this person plays a good Jesus Christ or some other character after watching countless biblical epics is up to one’s personal taste but I will say this of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, for one, it was magnificent to see how much was put into the creation of this film.  From the cities that were built, to the number of extras that were hired and how many talent took part in the film.  And the duration is pretty long, thus you get the music intermission half way into the film.

For me, I have watched so many versions of the life of Jesus Christ, from feature length films to made-for-TV movies and in some way, I felt that I could not sit still throughout the viewing of this film.  My mind wandered, I felt myself wanting to do other things while watching this film because I knew what was going to happen and unlike other films where there is an element of surprise, I felt I was more or less waiting to see how many talents I can spot doing cameos, the efficacy of the costume design and set design and how well were the talent being cast for the film.  So, that is what I mean by these type of films depends on the individual.

I know my religious mother would watch this film and enjoy it throughout its entirety and if I watched it with her, it would be like deja vu of going to church at a young age and hearing my mom telling me to pay attention to the priest instead of looking around the church at people.    Not to say that the story doesn’t interest me because it does. It all comes down to ones mood and discipline.  I see how other people in my family can watch these films, cry during the crucifixion and really are moved by it.

As I watched this film again but this time on Blu-ray, I’m going to be truthful and say that I wasn’t focused.  Because I have seen this film so many times, I was more focused on seeing how the picture and audio quality would be in certain parts of the film and when I was watching, I felt my mind was drifting.  I was looking at my watch, my mind was elsewhere quite a few times throughout the film and so, watching it again, I felt my interest in the film did wane quite a bit and I felt that when I was ready to watch, it was the time when you get to the story of the Last Supper and leading up to the crucifixion and then the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Blu-ray release does come with the two cool featurettes as the 2001 DVD, as well as a deleted scene and trailer but outside of that, there is nothing much added to the Blu-ray release and for those who are considering of upgrading, it would be a worthy upgrade especially for the better visuals and notably the lossless audio compared to its DVD counterpart.

Overall, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a great story and for Christians, its an important story.  But as a film, it’s a long film that demands your attention and if you have watched it repeatedly for so many years, it all comes down to your mood.  I can’t say it’s a George Stevens masterpiece as he had created many wonderful films in his oeuvre, but in an epic sense, he did a fantastic job in creating this film and doing the research for it, but also getting so many all-star talent to participate.  I just wished that there was more added to this Blu-ray release, considering the film is over 45-years-old and the last release was back in 2001.  It would have been great to have some thing new for the 2011 release.

But still, it would be a wonderful upgrade if you owned it on DVD and If you enjoyed this film or are a person who wanting a well-done, well-produced and well-acted biblical epic on Blu-ray, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is definitely for you!

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