The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Because The Greatest Story Ever Told is 225 minutes long, long enough to put in pretty much every part of the story of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels, it is in many ways more interesting to reflect upon the things that were left out.

It is surprising that many of the well-known miracles were only mentioned, not depicted visually: no scene of Jesus (Max von Sydow) turning water into wine, walking on water, or feeding the multitude with a basket of loaves and fishes. It is not surprising, on the other hand, that we do not see Jesus’s prediction that some of the people he is talking to will still be alive when the kingdom of God comes.

A lot of sins go unmentioned in this movie. Jesus does not say it is adultery to lust after a woman in your heart, or that it is a sin to get divorced, or that marrying someone who is divorced is adultery. But we do get the scene where the adulteress is saved by Jesus, who defies the mob by saying that the one without sin should cast the first stone. That’s what the audience wants to hear, not that lust or divorce are also forms of adultery, but that real adultery itself will be forgiven.

As is typical for a movie about Jesus, he never talks about Hell. There is a movie in which Jesus spends a lot of time talking about all the people who are going to Hell, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), but that is an exception. All the other Jesus movies leave that topic pretty much alone, at least as far as the sermons of Jesus are concerned. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, other people talk about Hell instead. In one scene, there is a religious figure who says that God is going to punish the wicked, but Jesus admonishes him, saying that God is about mercy. Never mind that what the guy was saying was actually similar to what Jesus himself says in the Bible, in this movie, Jesus will have none of it. This is followed shortly by a scene in which John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) tells King Herod (Claude Rains) that he is going to Hell for committing adultery, which again is consistent with the Biblical Jesus but not the Jesus of this movie. And when Jesus is giving Peter (Gary Raymond) the keys of the kingdom, even the relatively innocuous expression “gates of Hell” is left out of Jesus’s speech.

That this movie plays it safe in its treatment of Jesus, avoiding the depiction of anything that might make the audience uncomfortable, is understandable. What is somewhat perplexing, however, is the movie’s treatment of Judas (David McCallum). Where the Bible is ambiguous regarding Judas, so too is the movie. For example, there is some debate as to whether Judas received communion at the Last Supper. Consequently, the movie is ambiguous on this point as well. We see Judas holding the cup near his lips. Then the camera cuts away to Jesus, who makes a brief remark, after which we see Judas still holding he cup, leaving it an open question as to whether he took a sip. Fine. But where the Bible is not ambiguous is on Judas’s motive for betraying Jesus. Judas negotiates with the chief of priests to get thirty pieces of silver for delivering Jesus. The motive is money, pure and simple. But in the movie, instead of asking for money, we hear Judas going on about what a wonderful person Jesus is. And then, somewhat later, when he is given the pieces of silver that he did not ask for, he says he didn’t want any money, which leaves his betrayal of Jesus completely unmotivated. One almost gets the impression that the people who made this movie did not want to show Judas in a bad light, even though this is the man that Dante did not hesitate to put right next to Satan in the frozen lake at the center of the earth.  This treatment of Judas in various Jesus movies is covered more extensively in my essay “On the Rehabilitation of Judas.”

There is one thing in this movie that should have been kept out, and that is John Wayne’s only line. Right at the moment of Jesus’s death, we hear the Duke saying, “Truly, this man was the son of God,” in that unmistakable voice of his, and it is hard to keep from laughing.

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