Greatest Story Ever Told, The (1965): George Stevens’ Oscar-Nominated Biblical Epic, Starring Max Von Sydow as Jesus

George Stevens’s only attempt at making a biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, stars Max von Sydow as Jesus.

One of the most expensive fiascos ever made in Hollywood, the film claimed a budget of $20 million back in 1965, which is equivalent of over $160 million at present.

A labor of love, the movie is epic only in its ambitious intent and running time, which originally was four hours and 20 minutes, but later cut down to three hours and 15 minutes.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

About two dozen of Hollywood’s famous actors were asked to appear in the movie.  Thus, John Wayne was miscast in the improbable role of a Roman Centurion, leading Jesus to crucifixion in. He was given one line: “Truly, this man was a son of God,” evoked laughter in the audience and was sheer embarrassment.

Wayne’s performance, however, was just one of many other “shattering and distasteful” performances by many stars in small or cameo roles, including Dorothy McGuire and Robert Loggia as Mary and Joseph, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, David McCallum as Judas, Claude Rains as Herod, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Shelley Winters, and Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate.

Photo: John Wayne (mis)cast as Centurion

Largely dismissed by most critics, the movie was a huge commercial flop.

Years later, however, it began to be shown on TV around religious holidays, and TCM is presenting it every year around Christmas.

Sadly, this picture signaled the decline and then demise of the once glorious career of George Stevens, who would make only one more work.

Oscar Nominations: 5

Cinematography (color): William C. Mellor and Loyal Grigg

Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Richard Day, William Creber, David Hall; Ray Moyer, Fred MacLean, Norman Rockett

Music Score: Alfred Newman

Costume Design: Vittorio Nino Novarese and Marjorie Best

Special Visual Effects: J. McMillan Johnson

Oscar Awards: None


Max von Sydow as Jesus
Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary
Charlton Heston as John the Baptist
Claude Rains as Herod the Great
José Ferrer as Herod Antipas
Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate
Martin Landau as Caiaphas
David McCallum as Judas Iscariot
Donald Pleasence as “The Dark Hermit” (a personification of Satan)
Michael Anderson Jr. as James the Less
Roddy McDowall as Matthew
Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene
Joseph Schildkraut as Nicodemus
Ed Wynn as “Old Aram”

Smaller credited roles were played by Michael Ansara, Carroll Baker, Ina Balin, Robert Blake, Pat Boone, Victor Buono, John Considine, Richard Conte, John Crawford, Cyril Delevanti, Jamie Farr, David Hedison, Van Heflin, Russell Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Mark Lenard, Robert Loggia, John Lupton, Janet Margolin, Sal Mineo, Nehemiah Persoff, Sidney Poitier, Gary Raymond, Marian Seldes, David Sheiner, Abraham Sofaer, Paul Stewart, Michael Tolan, John Wayne, and Shelley Winters. Richard Bakalyan and Marc Cavell, in uncredited roles, played the thieves crucified with Jesus.