The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

221 or 225 and 183 mins | Epic | 15 February 1965

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HISTORY

The Greatest Story Ever Told was based on a 1949 novel of the same name, which Fulton Oursler published while contributing to Henry Denker’s weekly ABC Radio show about the life of Jesus Christ during its ten-year run from 1947 to 1957. Although articles in the 28 Feb 1951 LAT and 29 Jun 1951 NYT pointed to interest from director-producer Otto Preminger, it was not until 3 May 1954 that LAT announced the acquisition of motion picture rights by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. after an entire year of negotiations. By this time, the book had sold over 3.25 million copies domestically, and was translated into twelve languages. The sale reportedly included a lump sum of approximately $100,000 toward a cumulative price of $2 million.
       Despite the lengthy deliberations, Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck did not move forward with development until early 1955, as the 10 Jan 1955 DV reported that he had begun consultations with Denker. Over the next two years, items in the 9 Mar 1955 LAT and 7 Nov 1956 DV indicated that Henry Koster and Walter Lang were both attached to direct under production executive Buddy Adler, but neither remained with the project. Although no major crewmembers were confirmed, the 29 May 1955 LAT claimed that fabric weaver Dorothea Hulse had been assigned to create the period garments after her work on The Robe (1953, see entry) and David and Bathsheba (1951, see entry).
       Another two years passed, during which time director George Stevens entered into on again-off again discussions with the studio. Several sources ... More Less

The Greatest Story Ever Told was based on a 1949 novel of the same name, which Fulton Oursler published while contributing to Henry Denker’s weekly ABC Radio show about the life of Jesus Christ during its ten-year run from 1947 to 1957. Although articles in the 28 Feb 1951 LAT and 29 Jun 1951 NYT pointed to interest from director-producer Otto Preminger, it was not until 3 May 1954 that LAT announced the acquisition of motion picture rights by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. after an entire year of negotiations. By this time, the book had sold over 3.25 million copies domestically, and was translated into twelve languages. The sale reportedly included a lump sum of approximately $100,000 toward a cumulative price of $2 million.
       Despite the lengthy deliberations, Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck did not move forward with development until early 1955, as the 10 Jan 1955 DV reported that he had begun consultations with Denker. Over the next two years, items in the 9 Mar 1955 LAT and 7 Nov 1956 DV indicated that Henry Koster and Walter Lang were both attached to direct under production executive Buddy Adler, but neither remained with the project. Although no major crewmembers were confirmed, the 29 May 1955 LAT claimed that fabric weaver Dorothea Hulse had been assigned to create the period garments after her work on The Robe (1953, see entry) and David and Bathsheba (1951, see entry).
       Another two years passed, during which time director George Stevens entered into on again-off again discussions with the studio. Several sources noted that Stevens’s reluctance stemmed from fear that Fox’s legal team would muddle the terms of his creative vision for the picture, but the differences were ultimately resolved. A 19 Nov 1958 Var news story stated that Stevens would receive a salary of $1.5 million against a percentage of the eventual gross income. The 26 Sep 1958 NYT indicated that Philip Dunne had also signed on as a producer after committing to a new two-year contract as a writer, director, and producer at Fox, and the 20 Nov 1959 DV stated that Antonio Vellani would oversee story development at George Stevens Productions. In the spring, the 22 Apr 1960 LAT noted that Stevens; his son, associate producer George Stevens, Jr.; and researcher Tony van Renterghern embarked on a six-week location scout of Jerusalem and Israel, while John E. Fitzgerald, editor of the weekly Christian publication Our Sunday Visitor, began to assist in other pre-production duties. According to the 5 Apr 1961 Var, Fitzgerald’s original ten-week assignment as a script consultant was extended to forty weeks. In the summer of 1960, eighty-two-year-old poet and writer Carl Sandburg agreed to make his first foray into motion picture screenwriting to work on the project.
       Meanwhile, Samuel Bronston’s concurrent biography of Christ, King of Kings (see entry), was already in production for a 1961 release through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). According to a 1 Sep 1961 DV article, Fox president Spyros P. Skouras attempted to purchase the property from Bronston in hopes of eliminating potential competition, but was unsuccessful, eventually leading to Fox’s temporary resignation from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). According to the 14 Jun 1960 NYT, The Greatest Story Ever Told was just one of several multi-million-dollar Fox productions that were “jeopardized by features to be made, already produced or to be distributed by other companies” with representatives within the MPAA. On 30 Jun 1960, DV reported that Henry Denker had attempted to prevent such conflict by including a clause in the original rights contract stating that Fox needed to release the film before 1959. Their failure to do so led to Denker filing a $2.5 million lawsuit against the studio.
       Amid these setbacks, Stevens and the Fox production team began searching for a relatively unknown actor to portray Christ among a cast of high-profile supporting players. Several sources, including the 25 Dec 1960 LAT, claimed that Hollywood stars were requesting the opportunity to be involved or offered to appear in cameo roles without ever reading the script. The first to sign on was John Wayne in the role of the Roman centurion who leads Jesus to the cross. Sidney Poitier also joined as “Simon of Cyrene,” with Elizabeth Taylor, who worked with Stevens on A Place in the Sun (1951, see entry) and Giant (1956, see entry), rumored as “Mary Magdalene.” However, a 6 Mar 1961 DV news story revealed that Taylor ultimately declined after Stevens’s company was unable to meet her terms. The 11 Jan 1961 NYT and 20 Sep 1961 Var stated that Spencer Tracy signed on as “Pontius Pilate,” while Alec Guinness gave a verbal commitment to play both “Herod Antipas” and “Herod the Great” depending on his availability. Accomplished Swedish actor Max von Sydow, then largely unknown to American audiences, was confirmed to portray Jesus Christ for his first Hollywood film appearance.
       After thirteen months on the project, the 11 Sep 1961 DV reported that Carl Sandburg would make himself available for further script contributions from his farm in North Carolina while Ivan Moffat and James Lee Barrett assumed primary writing duties. In her 27 Jun 1961 LAT column, Hedda Hopper stated that a total of six writers were working on the screenplay; an earlier report in the 21 May 1961 edition indicated that one of those additional names may have been John Stone, who had previous experience consulting on other Biblical epics.
       On 1 Sep 1961, DV and NYT announced that Fox board members had agreed to “indefinitely postpone” all further development. After a poor fiscal year in 1960 and a slate of expensive pictures like Cleopatra (1963, see entry) currently in the works, executives were concerned that the $2.3 million already spent on pre-production activities indicated that the company would likely face more financial losses once the project began shooting. Stevens publicly admonished the decision, and a few days later, the 6 Sep 1961 LAT stated that he had bought back the property with the intention of finding new financing. The arrangement stipulated that Stevens would receive his agreed salary of $1 million, while Fox would uphold its obligations to committed cast members and the costume and set departments. The article confirmed that the sunk costs would be returned once the film earned a profit of $5 million at the box-office.
       While Stevens reportedly received several offers, the 7 Nov 1961 NYT reported that he chose to move production and distribution to United Artists (UA), where he was promised complete creative control. Deals with John Wayne, Max von Sydow, and Sidney Poitier carried over to the new studio, and Stevens spent the next two years casting the remaining roles. According to items in the 3 Aug 1962 and 27 Aug 1962 LAT and 12 Nov 1962 DV, Stevens approached both Montgomery Clift and Maximilian Schell to portray “Judas Iscariot,” and the 17 Jan 1963 DV, 11 and 12 Apr 1963 LAT, and 17 May 1963 DV claimed that Vic Lundin, Larry Chance, Red Morgan , and Shelley Morrison had been selected for roles. Additional DV casting announcements also named Madeline Holmes, Helyn Eby-Rock, Hope Landin, Laura Wood, Stephen Joyce, Marc Cavell, Herb Armstrong, Moira Turner, and Viola Harris, but their participation could not be confirmed.
       A 21 Apr 1963 LAT article stated that principal photography began 29 Oct 1962, but various DV production charts listed a later start date of 5 Nov 1962. Production took place entirely in the U.S., as Stevens told the 14 Feb 1965 NYT that the historical sites he viewed on his location trip to Jerusalem in 1960 had been badly eroded by human occupation and warfare and would not represent the landscape as it had been during Jesus’s lifetime. Articles in the 2 Sep 1962 NYT and 9 Dec 1962 and 21 Apr 1963 LAT revealed that substitute locations included an area near the Colorado River at Wahweap, UT (specifically Glen Canyon and the historical river crossing, Crossing of the Fathers); Moab, UT; Death Valley, CA; and Pyramid Lake in Nevada, which doubled as the Sea of Galilee. Interiors were spread across five sound stages on the Desilu-Culver Studios in Culver City, CA, which a 5 Mar 1962 LAT story reported Stevens had rented for $350,000 per year.
       In addition to the large cast, the ambitious production necessitated an extensive team of background actors. The 16 May 1962 LAT estimated that the film would use between 700 and 1,000 extras, and a NYT article published that same day detailed an arrangement Stevens had made with the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) stating that only 125 of those actors were required to be guild members compensated at the standard minimum of $22.47 per day. All others hired beyond the 125 could be paid at the U.S. federal minimum wage of $1.25 per hour. A 9 Jan 1963 DV brief revealed an even higher number of actors—1,500—required for the “Walls of Jerusalem” sequences, which was overseen by a total of ten assistant directors: Francisco (Chico) Day, Raymond Gosnell, Jr., and Ridgeway Callow (first assistant directors); and William Lukather, John Veitch, Wallace Jones, Stanley Brooks, Wendell James Franklin, Bud Brill , and Richard Lang (second assistant directors). According to the 1 Nov 1962 Los Angeles Sentinel, Franklin was the first African-American to ever be employed in that position on a major Hollywood production. British director David Lean also served as a director of certain special sequences featuring actor Claude Rains, as confirmed by the 16 Aug 1965 DV and 21 Apr 1963 LAT.
       According to items in the 28 May 1962 and 28 Aug 1963 DV, additional crewmembers included Constantin Morros, who created three-dimensional models of key sets, and drivers with Shine-Phillips transportation company. The 13 Sep 1962 LAT revealed that Eliot Elisofon worked as a color consultant with the photography department. The Greatest Story Ever Told marked the final feature film of co-director of photography William C. Mellor and set artist David Hall, both of whom died prior to the theatrical release. The film was also the penultimate assignment completed by stunt pilot Paul Mantz before his death in an accident on the set of The Flight of the Phoenix (1965, see entry).
       A 24 Jul 1963 Var article estimated that principal photography would be completed two days later, on 26 Jul 1963, but a few months into post-production, the 18 Nov 1964 DV indicated that actor Nehemiah Persoff had been called back to the studio for additional scenes. Although UA never confirmed the rumored $17—$20 million figure circulated by the media, costs were revealed by former George Stevens Productions vice president Frank I. Davis in a 27 Jan 1966 DV article detailing a lawsuit filed against UA by Rossmore Motion Picture Catering owner Cecil Hutchins. Deposition minutes noted that the studio spent $16.8 million up through photography, and a total of $20 million by the time of the film’s release. These numbers far exceeded the original budget of $7,468,116.
       A 24 Oct 1965 LAT article designated Frederick Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer with “adaptation” credit for arranging Alfred Newman’s basic musical themes into additional orchestrations that would fill out the rest of the score.
       The intended release date scheduled for early 1964 was pushed back an entire year while Stevens and UA decided whether to convert the Ultra Panavision negative for presentation on Cinerama’s new single-lens widescreen process or use the traditional three-strip format, which had become more expensive. According to the 9 Oct 1964 NYT, Stevens preferred the latter, but the film was ultimately projected with a single camera, and the opening withheld until Feb 1965 to avoid competition with the holiday release of My Fair Lady (1964, see entry).
       The Greatest Story Ever Told premiered 15 Feb 1965 at the Warner Cinerama Theatre in New York City as a benefit for the United Nations Association of the United States and the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation, with First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson in attendance. The Los Angeles, CA, premiere event two days later took place at the Pacific Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, with proceeds supporting the same organizations. Multiple benefits followed in the ensuing weeks, and the 24 Mar 1965 Var announced that the Warner Cinerama in New York would host sixty-three special, child-friendly morning shows throughout the months of Apr, May, and Jun. According to the 14 Dec 1965 DV, the exclusive engagement in Los Angeles ran a total of forty-three weeks, and the 3 Jan 1966 LAT published a story about fifty-eight-year-old local Miriam Dresden who claimed to have seen the picture sixty-three times. Citywide screenings began 12 Oct 1966.
       Various contemporary sources reported on the picture’s constantly changing running time, both throughout post-production and release. According to a 19 Mar 1964 LAT article, Stevens began the editing process with 800,000 feet of footage, which needed to be cut down to 25,000 feet, or a maximum duration of three hours. Later that year, the 9 Oct 1964 NYT stated that the working cut still exceeded three and a half hours. While 16 Feb 1965 NYT review listed a comparable running time of 221 minutes, a 10 Mar 1965 DV article noted a 225-minute version (not including a ten-minute intermission) was screened for theatergoers in Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami Beach, FL. That night’s Washington, D.C. engagement at the Uptown Theatre was expected to play twenty-eight minutes shorter (193 minutes), although the modified sequences in question were merely tightened, not removed. Future openings in Chicago, IL; Cincinnati, OH; Pittsburgh. PA; and Boston, MA, on 11 Mar 1965 were also expected to reflect this change. According to the 14 Apr 1965 DV, the modified cut then replaced the original version in New York City theaters, which a 28 Apr 1965 Var brief calculated at 193 minutes and thirty-two seconds. Two years later, an even shorter, 141-minute reissue opened in general release in New York City beginning 31 May 1967.
       The film was not a financial success, as the 7 Jun 1967 Var reported that sixty percent of the $20 million negative cost had since been written off by UA, and a box-office report published on 3 Jan 1968 indicated that it had only earned $6,310,298 in domestic rentals to date. Although critics generally acknowledged George Stevens’s skills as a director, many, such as NYT’s Bosley Crowther, felt that the casting of so many big-name stars in minor roles was distracting to the story.
       The high production value, however, earned the picture five Academy Award nominations in the cateogries of Art Direction (Color), Cinematography (Color), Costume Design (Color), Music (Music Score—substantially original), and Special Visual. Effects. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
10 Jan 1955
p. 4.
Daily Variety
7 Nov 1956
p. 2.
Daily Variety
20 Nov 1959
p. 18.
Daily Variety
19 Apr 1960
p. 3.
Daily Variety
30 Jun 1960
p. 3.
Daily Variety
6 Mar 1961
p. 4.
Daily Variety
1 Sep 1961
p. 1, 4.
Daily Variety
11 Sep 1961
p. 3.
Daily Variety
28 May 1962
p. 4.
Daily Variety
12 Nov 1962
p. 3.
Daily Variety
17 Dec 1962
p. 4.
Daily Variety
9 Jan 1963
p. 6.
Daily Variety
17 Jan 1963
p. 6.
Daily Variety
15 Mar 1963
p. 4.
Daily Variety
1 May 1963
p. 15.
Daily Variety
16 May 1963
p. 4.
Daily Variety
17 May 1963
p. 2.
Daily Variety
20 May 1963
p. 11.
Daily Variety
24 May 1963
p. 3.
Daily Variety
10 Jul 1963
p. 4.
Daily Variety
28 Aug 1963
p. 4.
Daily Variety
4 Nov 1963
p. 5.
Daily Variety
23 Nov 1963
p. 6.
Daily Variety
4 Dec 1963
p. 2.
Daily Variety
27 Jul 1964
p. 5.
Daily Variety
23 Oct 1964
p. 1.
Daily Variety
18 Nov 1964
p. 3.
Daily Variety
10 Mar 1965
p. 1, 33.
Daily Variety
14 Apr 1965
p. 2.
Daily Variety
16 Aug 1965
p. 2.
Daily Variety
14 Dec 1965
p. 3.
Daily Variety
27 Jan 1966
p. 3.
Los Angeles Sentinel
1 Nov 1962
Section A, p. 4.
Los Angeles Sentinel
7 Jan 1965
Section B, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times
28 Feb 1951
p. 17.
Los Angeles Times
3 May 1954
Section B, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
9 Mar 1955
p. 16.
Los Angeles Times
29 May 1955
Section C, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
22 Apr 1960
Section A, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
10 Jul 1960
Section F, p. 1, 5.
Los Angeles Times
29 Jun 1960
Section A, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times
18 Dec 1960
Section B, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times
25 Dec 1960
Section B, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times
20 Feb 1961
Section B, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
21 May 1961
Section J, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times
27 Jun 1961
Section A, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
6 Sep 1961
Section C, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
7 Nov 1961
Section C, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
5 Mar 1962
Section C, p. 14.
Los Angeles Times
16 May 1962
p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
3 Aug 1962
Section C, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
16 Aug 1962
Section B, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times
27 Aug 1962
Section C, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times
13 Sep 1962
Section A, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
24 Sep 1962
Section C, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1962
Section J, pp. 12-13.
Los Angeles Times
11 Apr 1963
Section E, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times
12 Apr 1963
Section C, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times
21 Apr 1963
Section N, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
19 Mar 1964
Section C, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times
8 Jan 1965
Section B, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times
10 Jan 1965
Section B, p. 1, 30.
Los Angeles Times
11 Jan 1965.
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Feb 1965
Section B, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times
17 Feb 1965
Section D, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times
9 Jul 1965
p. 1, 3.
Los Angeles Times
24 Oct 1965
Section B, p. 1, 20.
Los Angeles Times
3 Jan 1966
Section D, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times
7 Oct 1966
Section D, p. 18.
New York Times
29 Jun 1951
p. 14.
New York Times
3 May 1954
p. 21.
New York Times
26 Sep 1958
p. 24.
New York Times
15 Nov 1958
p. 17.
New York Times
19 Nov 1958
p. 45.
New York Times
14 Jun 1960
p. 43.
New York Times
14 Sep 1960
p. 51.
New York Times
11 Jan 1961
p. 24.
New York Times
1 Sep 1961
p. 11.
New York Times
7 Nov 1961
p. 38.
New York Times
16 May 1962
p. 41.
New York Times
2 Sep 1962
p. 67.
New York Times
9 Oct 1964
p. 34.
New York Times
13 Dec 1964
p. 89.
New York Times
24 Jan 1965
p. 75.
New York Times
11 Feb 1965
p. 42.
New York Times
14 Feb 1965
Section X, p. 7.
New York Times
16 Feb 1965
p. 40.
Variety
6 Aug 1958
p. 1.
Variety
19 Nov 1958
p. 16.
Variety
5 Apr 1961
p. 15.
Variety
20 Sep 1961
p. 11.
Variety
24 Jul 1963
p. 7.
Variety
31 Jul 1963
p. 5.
Variety
1 Jan 1964
p. 14.
Variety
19 Feb 1964
p. 4.
Variety
15 Apr 1964
p. 3.
Variety
24 Mar 1965
p. 26.
Variety
28 Apr 1965
p. 15.
Variety
31 May 1967
p. 18.
Variety
7 Jun 1967
p. 3.
Variety
3 Jan 1968
p. 21.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
David Hedison
Johnny Seven
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2nd unit dir
2nd unit dir
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod in creative assoc with
Exec prod
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Dir of photog
Col cons
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Sets created by
Set dec
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Asst cost des
MUSIC
Mus comp & cond
Choral supv
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec visual eff
Spec visual eff
Spec visual eff
Spec visual eff
MAKEUP
Makeup creator
Hairstyles
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Scr supv
Prop master
Constr supv
Casting
Prod staff
Prod staff
Prod staff
Prod staff
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book The Greatest Story Ever Told by Fulton Oursler and Henry Denker (New York, 1949).
DETAILS
Release Date:
15 February 1965
Premiere Information:
New York premiere and opening: 15 February 1965
Los Angeles premiere and opening: 17 February 1965
Production Date:
29 October or 5 November 1962--26 July 1963
Copyright Claimant:
George Stevens Productions
Copyright Date:
15 February 1965
Copyright Number:
LP32294
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
gauge
70 & 35
Widescreen/ratio
Ultra Panavision 70
Duration(in mins):
221 or 225 and 183
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

The life of Jesus Christ is depicted; highlights include: His birth in Bethlehem, Herod's decree ordering the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem; the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, the selection of the Twelve Apostles, the execution of John the Baptist, the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, the expulsion of the moneylenders from the temple in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and subsequent betrayal by Judas, the Crucifixion, and the ... +


The life of Jesus Christ is depicted; highlights include: His birth in Bethlehem, Herod's decree ordering the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem; the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, the selection of the Twelve Apostles, the execution of John the Baptist, the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, the expulsion of the moneylenders from the temple in Jerusalem, the Last Supper and subsequent betrayal by Judas, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.