Where Was The Greatest Story Ever Told Filmed: Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told throughout the United States southwest, in the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, among other locations. Jesus’ 40-day journey into the wilderness was filmed at Pyramid Lake in Nevada, Lake Moab in Utah, and California’s Death Valley. The Sea of Galilee was filmed at Pyramid Lake in Nevada, the Sermon on the Mount was filmed at Lake Moab in Utah, and the Sermon on the Mount was shot at Lake Moab in Utah.
Parts of the film were also shot in Utah, including locations such as Lake Powell, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point.
Telly Savalas, Sidney Poitier, and Shelley Winters all played important and minor roles in the movie. People couldn’t believe that the movie had so many famous actors playing important and minor roles. And Max von Sydow’s Jesus was seen as aloof and unfriendly by many people.
In the movie, Stevens chose to shoot it in the American Southwest, which has been criticized for making the movie less real. Also, there is the planned pace and extra time for running (199 minutes on DVD).
The Greatest Story Ever Told, on the other hand, is very different from most of Hollywood’s biblical epics. It places true devotion and piety above theatrics and grandeur. It doesn’t have the entertainment value of The Ten Commandments or the psychological and historical realism of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, but it is arguably more evocative of the spirit of biblical literature than either of these two films.
Greater Story is most closely linked to the sublime, brilliant spirit of the Gospel of John, which is the source of the prologue’s opening shot of a church fresco of Christ with his arms spread. This image evokes 2,000 years of tradition and faith. A lot of what people say has secondary meanings and references to the Old Testament (or Christian history), just like in the Fourth Gospel.
Where Was The Greatest Story Ever Told Filmed
It makes sense to think of Von Sydow’s unflinching presentation as an interpretation of John’s clearly divine and supreme Lord, in contrast to the Synoptics’ more explicit evidence of humanity. When you look at him, he doesn’t seem friendly or personable, but at the same time, he is seductively authoritarian and knows everything.
There are times when the Greatest Story is very different from the Bible, but it often feels more like the weird other vision of an apocryphal gospel than modern revisionism or conjecture. It’s as shocking as DeMille’s Moses–Rameses–Nefretiri triangle or Zeffirelli’s Magi skipping Herod’s court when Herod gets angry about foreigners who don’t visit him. But after the initial shock wears off, the Lazarus scene doesn’t pull me out of the story in the same way. It’s not from the Bible, but it also doesn’t seem like a betrayal or a break into the story.
An ethereal world is created on screen thanks to careful compositions, beautiful cinematography, dramatic Renaissance–style chiaroscuro lighting and shadow, and a dreamy soundtrack by Alfred Newman and others. A lot of the things that make this world look like it came from Hollywood. But that doesn’t make it any less real. The artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance portrayed Gospel stories that had European landscapes, clothes, and architecture in them.
: This is just common sense. This isn’t something to judge or be angry about. Similarly, Greatest Story looks like what it is: a Hollywood movie with a lot of stars. It doesn’t matter that Death Valley doesn’t look like Israel, or that a cast of unknowns may have made the movie more “realistic.”
There are some flaws. The solemn tone usually works on its own, but when it ventures into conversational realism, it looks out of place. James: “Jesus, that is a great name.” Then Jesus said, “Thank you,” and smiled. There are some things that don’t look right in the movie, like Judas’s “half-exoneration,” which isn’t as pure as Zeffirelli’s naive fool, but he still says he’s “not interested in the money,” even though the New Testament says he is.
People who act in movies usually don’t have a big personalities. Charlton Heston’s portrayal of John the Baptist, though, does. Wayne’s line readings at the cross is one of the most dangerous parts of the movie, but it’s nothing compared to Heston’s crazy part, which is so outlandish that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t meant to be.
A lot of people think of Moses after the burning bush in The Ten Commandments as a very reverent person. But Heston portrays the Baptist in the movie Planet of the Apes with macho and rebellious “Get your filthy hands off me” machismo. When the head of a group sent to capture him says, “We have orders to send you to Herod,” Heston says, “I have orders to deliver you to God.” When the soldiers try to attack the Baptist in the river, he grabs them and forcibly ducks them in a near-Pythonesque farce, yelling, “Repent! Repent!”
Fortunately, this isn’t going to be the case for the next 198 minutes. Using prayerful voiceovers, chanting prayers, and references to Old Testament prophecy, the film creates a tangible, poetic sense of meditative awareness. The characters are often artificially aware of the significance of the events they act out, and the Creed’s words “suffered under Pontius Pilate…” seem to come to mind without being asked. It’s almost more like a church pageant than a Hollywood show. I think that’s a good thing.
Stevens stated why he chose the United States rather than the Middle East or Europe as the location for his 1962 mission. “As a backdrop to Christ, I wanted to create an impression of grandeur; nonetheless, none of the Holy Land places can compete with the energy of the American southwest. I am well aware that Colorado is neither the Jordan nor is Southern Utah the Palestine of the Old Testament. However, our objective is to romanticize the place, and we believe that this can be accomplished more effectively here.”
Stevens’ vision was realized through the construction of 47 sets, both on-site and in Hollywood studios. When the set for Jerusalem was constructed in early 1963, it was located in the northwest corner of RKO Forty Acres and was dismantled as soon as production was concluded in mid-year.
Stevens resorted to the community for extras for his location shoots in order to keep costs down. After 550 Navajo Indians from a neighboring reservation allegedly failed to put on a convincing show, R.O.T.C. cadets from an Arizona high school took on the role of Roman troops as a replacement.
Other accounts indicate they weren’t on set long enough and had to leave early to participate in a tribal election, and that the Arizona Department of Welfare cast crippled state assistance users to portray the sick who came to Jesus for treatment.
After multiple delays and setbacks—the most of which were caused by Stevens’ insistence on filming hundreds of retakes in every scene—principal photography was originally intended to last three months but ended up lasting nine months or more.
In the case of Nicodemus, Joseph Schildkraut passed away before finishing his performance, necessitating the rewriting of sequences to accommodate his absence.
In the midst of shooting, cinematographer William C. Mellor passed away due to a heart attack; Loyal Griggs, who had won an Academy Award for his cinematography on Stevens’ 1953 Western masterpiece Shane, was called in to fill in for him. Joanna Dunham got pregnant, necessitating the alteration of costumes and the selection of carefully planned camera angles.