The Greatest Story Ever Told
Just about everyone knows the story of Jesus already, so that’ll save me some time. But as Roger Ebert said, “A movie is not about what it is about, it is HOW it is about it.” You follow? Meaning you could give the same script to ten different directors and come out with ten very different movies of varying quality. So here is New Testament: The Movie brought to you in epic fashion by George Stevens. How does it fare?
I’ll say this first – I’m an atheist. I think all this stuff is pure nonsense and just happens to be one of the more recent myths in history that people still believe in. As long as it’s not overtaken by Scientology someday, maybe I shouldn’t complain. All that being said, I feel I can still look at films based on the Bible with unbiased eyes. I see them as movies first, ancient fables second, and a weird religion followed devoutly by millions third. I’ve seen a few other movie based on the same material and have had different opinions. I thought Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was mostly a waste of fucking time, but I could still appreciate on honest attempt at making a more “realistic” version of the crucifixion of Jesus. But in the end, I did not learn anything new about Christianity and I certainly wasn’t swayed by the buckets of blood to give Christ another chance in my life. However, The Last Temptation of Christ is a great movie. It doesn’t just come up with a new twist on the old story, it uses the twist in a way that gives Jesus’ sacrifice much more meaning. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus went through psychological and spiritual torture in his last moments, as opposed to Caviezel’s mere physical torture. What I’m trying to say is, I do give these movies a chance even though they’re about a pagan sorcerer zombie that a too-large portion of the modern world believes will bring them to paradise with bottomless ice cream sundaes when they die.
First thing I noticed about this movie was its three and a half hour running time. And it feels like three and a half hours. (Wikipedia tells me original US release was 2 hours and 17 minutes. This DVD release must be an extended 3:19 cut…) Immediately the movie hits you with all the stilted stagy dialogue one may have come to expect from Biblical epics. And it never lets up. The result is not a feeling of ancient time and place, but of a really long nativity play put on by the kids in the neighborhood church. Not that the acting is all bad; Max von Sydow as Jesus and David McCallum as Judas pull off the work as well as it could be. But the movie suffers from an overabundance of star power. Claude Rains, Telly Savalas, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, John Wayne in an infamous one line performance (“Truly he is the son of God…pardner”), and many other stars of the era are sprinkled throughout the film. I bet I missed at least a dozen – looking at the cast list on IMDB I can see several more names I recognize even if I didn’t notice them in the movie (Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone, Shelley Winters). Still, what I saw was enough to take me right out of the movie time and time again. Why did they all sign on? Was it a studio desperate to make a 3+ hour movie more palatable to the movie-going public? Did all these stars beg to have a role – any role, no matter how small – just because it was a religious picture? I don’t know and I don’t care. They should have cut sixty pages from the script and cast people who made sense for their roles instead.
This movie simply preaches directly to the audience once adult Jesus shows up. He goes to see John the Baptist aka Caveman Charlton Heston, is recognized as the messiah, and gets his first disciples. Everything between those events and the end, whereupon Jesus is crucified, is merely a string of episodes where Jesus teaches his followers, heals the blind, and delivers all of the cliched Bible verses you can think of (Do unto others, Let he who is without sin, etc etc). I guess this is no surprise to readers of the Bible, for this is the story of Jesus. Perhaps I came to this movie looking for the wrong thing, a different way of telling the same old stories. But it is just the same old stories set to moving pictures.
The Last Supper scene continues the trend and manages to simultaneously avoid any sense of doom or even basic drama AND rip off DaVinci’s famous painting. A painting is a painting is a painting and there was no reason to record the scene the same way except to trigger the memory of it in the viewers’ minds. The Last Supper will hold a place in history as long as there is a memory of it. It is significant as a piece of art, but the film can only ape it. There have been many versions of the painting over the centuries by many different artists, but when I see a plain knock off like the one in this film, I can’t help but hold it in contempt. Instead of adding something to the scene to make it resonate, something as simple as real human emotion, George Stevens instead chose to mimic the popular image of the last supper. It does not mean anything in the film. The framing is all wrong, the staging and blocking is stiff, plainly it just doesn’t make any sense to film this scene in this way. Probably it was made this way because people expected to see it this way and I consider that giving in to the lowest common denominator.
I think this scene is representative of the entire movie. Instead of delivering a religious experience, we are given Sunday school. Instead of seeing Jesus and his followers as real people going through a tremendous period of change in their lives and civilizations, we are given cardboard archetypes that only do what everyone already knows they’re going to do. Instead of trying to accompany the Bible and build on its messages, the movie is a coloring book copy of the Bible and its director dared not color outside the lines.
While some performances, especially von Sydow’s, may stand out, the epic loses points for A) trying to cram too many damn stars down our throats and B) not giving its real actors anything to do. The movie as a whole is stilted, solemn, and disengaging. I give it four Caveman Charlton Hestons out of ten, which I consider a gift. That rating is only slightly better than the actual Bible.