The George Stevens Seminar — Part 4 – Regarding The Greatest Story Ever Told
So the question arises, why would anyone want to make a Biblical Epic?
Pardon me, the question I should ask is: why would I, or anyone, want to watch one?
That’s the more realistic question, since, at the time it came out, a fan of him, I did not attempt to see George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told. There were two reasons for this, the first one of which I have already answered by asking the second question, but the second reason is that the director seemed to have gotten above himself in the last part of Giant. It is the same reason I did not see The Diary Of Anne Frank when he made it. I had seen the Broadway production and I had read the book, and that too seemed an odd sort of subject for a director, whose mastery of contemporary themes in A Place In The Sun and Shane, it seemed to me, should have gone in a direction more gratifying to me personally. The fact was, that I understood the director to be no longer interested in me personally. I treasured him. I would not trash him by attending such films any more.
A Biblical Epic?
A New Testament Epic, in particular.
What is the problem with the New Testament as a story suitable for filming?
The problem is that the “story” of Jesus, AKA The Greatest Story Ever Told, does not have a story at all to tell. It has episodes, it has quotations, it has sermons, it has some miracles, it has a trial scene, and an execution for a crime, and the fact that from this execution of a criminal, many religions and a huge celebrity are raised. But the life of Jesus itself has no story.
Stevens himself recognized this. For, many years later, he said he had seen some of the film again, and that if he had to do it all over again he would do it exactly the same way, but he called it “an exposition.” In the rubric of drama that term means a scene where you learn facts about a character’s past. The “attention, attention must be paid,” scene in Death Of A Salesman, where Linda Loman tells her sons their father is trying to commit suicide, is such a scene. There is no action. There is simply the giving of information and the effect of it on the boys. In this sense, the story of Jesus is not a story of someone; it is a story about someone. It is information. In The Greatest Story Ever Told nothing happens.
Jesus is a person who – from the time he was 12 and was noticed as an ocean preaching to a drizzle in the temple – disappeared from view until he was 30. What happened to him during that time is not known, but it is speculated that he entered training with Essenes, which would be something like the Sufis, in which training something very big would have happened to him indeed, although not something about which a drama could be made. That is to say, he underwent at least one spiritual transformation and probably more. That was the happening, and the only happening, but after that until the time he died, nothing happened to him whatsoever. For he was an already fully realized being.
What happened happened only to the people around him. Because something happened to their characters, you could make a story about Thomas or Andrew or Judas or Peter, but not one about Jesus. They were changed. He was not.
So there is no story. There is only a record, a record by the people to whom the happening happened. He himself wrote nothing.
The record recounts miracles and sermons and parables and sayings and actions and his death. There are events. There is information.
But, except for the temptation in the wilderness (as Milton knew) there is no drama. Because there is no conflict within the person of Jesus. Jesus himself is beyond all persons.
And that is what Hollywood Biblical Epic filmmakers seem not to see. I guess they make Biblical Epics because they are celebrity freaks, and, next to God, Jesus is the biggest celebrity ever. So they think everyone wants to know his inside story. And they’re right. Everybody does. But there is no inside story. The story is over before the record begins. Unlike the Buddha’s, Jesus story is a foregone conclusion. His stuff has happened before it is noticed to be important enough for anyone to pay attention to it. And this is the great difficulty in dramatizing Jesus: as a dramatic character, it has no arc. He does not begin somewhere and end somewhere else. And another problem: he is already too discovered.
An additional problem arises, with the original novel: The New Testament.
In George Stevens’ case, here, his script depends upon The King James’ Version, which is very beautiful – in a church. But in a movie house it does not ring true. And for a very simple reason. Which is that in Biblical Epic, no one is allowed to speak like a normal human being. Hollywood Epic diction does not allow normal contractions. A character does not say, “I’m going back to Galilee.” Instead, they are made to say, “I am returning unto Galilee.” Now at the time, in 30 A.D., when someone wanted to go back to Galilee, they’d say, “I’m off to Galilee,” just as we would now. They would not engage in fancy locutions, and if they did, folks would, as now, consider them to be nuts and boring.
Of course, written as a text, “unto Galilee” sounds special and exalted. It is part of glorious high church Jacobean literary usage – not that any 17th Century person would use it in ordinary parlance. Written, it is divine. Spoken, it is foolish.
So when we watch a Biblical Epic we always wonder why these people are so stifled in their diction. What is wrong with them? Why are they such sticks? Is that what meeting with the guru does to folks?
And it is also true that Jesus did not preach in The King James Version, beautiful as it is. He spoke in the diction of his day, which would have been the same as ours: simple. For I don’t believe that he was one of those horse’s ass preachers we see in our tents and TVs. “Suffer the children to come unto me,” is a gorgeous way of saying what probably at the time was said simply. It is so gorgeous; in fact, that it shrouds the dramatic possibilities of the situation that probably inspired it.
A bunch of folks are gathered around Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the kids are getting rambunctious, and the fathers tell the mothers to get the brats out of there. But Jesus says, ”No, let them come right here,” and he sets them forth as examples of the innocence of approach which he counsels their parents to find in themselves, the easiness of the light of God. So, in fact, the grandeur of the language restrains drama when spoken, it does not inspire it. When you read The King James’ Version of The Bible, the language induces a spiritual experience; it does the same in church; in a film it squelches it and makes it suspect.
Of course we are always gratified to hear the beautiful words once again and uttered by a trained performer of beautiful words. But, while this is nice, it has no necessary relevance to the content of drama.
The light of God.
That’s the subject of Christ’s life, and his message is that it is in us all right now. And that the name of it in Earthly terms is Love.
So the question is: does the movie produce the presence of God in us. That is to say, is it scripture? Is De Mille’s The Ten Commandments scripture? And, if it isn’t, what is the film doing up there?
Was George Stevens experiencing the presence of God as he took all those years to make this movie?
I don’t think so.
And does the movie induce it?
I don’t feel it.
I don’t sense Stevens to have been a man of much spiritual élan. I like him, I respect him, he is a Fine Artist to be sure, I admire him, and wish to pass along his legacy of beautiful things to everyone. He is a decent man and a man of character. But I do not see in him a man of a particularly Christian or even spiritual texture.
Finally, the task becomes how to cast such a film, a film whose focus is Jesus. What actor can play this part?
In making this film, Stevens was mightily influenced by the religious art of the Renaissance, and often by Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro, an off screen side light with heavy black shading to frame faces, with a key light under the eye. But what failed to register in Stevens’ interest in this is that Rembrandt, alone among Biblical painters, used real Jews for his models.
Casting was one of Stevens’ strong points, but here you look at the casting with wonderment. Is there a single Jew in this cast? Shelly Winters has a moment in a scene as the Woman Without A Name, and Ed Wynn is perfect as the blind man made to see, but who else? Roddy MacDowell as an apostle? Dorothy McGuire as Mary? Van Heflin? Do they seems Jewish? Where is Edward G. Robinson, Sam Jaffe, Hedy Lamar, Luther Adler, Lauren Bacall? Are we back there in the Holy Land in 32 A.D., with the Jews? Never. So the film is wanting in the right actors, good as those people in it are.
And this has always been the case with Biblical Epic. For, not only the supporting players, but how do you cast Jesus?
The noble Jim Casaviel?
Are they, do they look Jewish; do they even look Middle Eastern?
Or, in this case, Max Von Sydow, a towhead blue-eyed blond?
With dyed hair. Or a wig. Or darkened up.
Or was he meant to look Sephardic?
Sydow is excellent, mind you, in bringing an important gravitas to the part.
But that’s it.
If it was so hard to find a Jewish actor (Paul Newman being unavailable, undesirable, miscast?), why was it not so hard to have found Joseph Schildkraut way back when?
And, once you have cast anyone as Jesus, how can he be expected to embody a person of such advanced evolution, when no one knows what that really is. Granted, an actor does not play I Am The King. Or I am The Savior. The cast around him plays You are the King, You are The Savior. But that’s in the theatre, which does not present the actor and the audience with the danger of The Closeup. In a movie, in order to play Jesus, you really do have to evince an already enlightened being. For people were not transformed by what Jesus said, but by what he was when they came in contact with him, as we in the movie theater are invited to do now. But where is it in this film? You have to see it.
What happens is that all these problems forbid dramatic excellence or even possibility. And since they do, what results is amateurism, even on the level of George Stevens, which is a very high level indeed. These wants reduce the film to the level of a church pageant.
Now, there is nothing wrong with a church pageant. In a church pageant, the performers go through one or another event of Christ’s life, the birth at Christmas, the death at Easter. The children get dressed up and perform it. Or the adults get dressed up and perform, as I saw once performed, at the monastery of San Luis Obispo by the Teatro Camposito, The Temptation In The Wilderness with a brilliant and beautiful actor in gold lamé and hung like the very dream of seduction, and a Jesus whom no one remembered. Or performed last year in Richmond, California, where the Hispanic church put on a full scale production, which began in Church with the disciples and Gethsemane, continued into the parking lot where among parked cars Veronica wiped Jesus with the handkerchief, and went on to the baseball diamond where the three crosses were erected on home base, and where the three actors hung in the cold while hundreds of parishioners watched.
Why did they watch?
Because to watch something so amateur is so difficult that we undergo the suffering we see? And Epics take so long.
Because it is an entertainment and entertainments are rare in church?
Because it is good to encounter the events in a different way than purely literary or sermonized ones?
These are the reasons to go to see a Biblical Epic?
One’s own aesthetic suffering.
And, perhaps, but probably not, for a direct experience of the presence of God.
A direct experience of the presence of God might occur because such experiences occur while in groups, such as a congregation.
But probably not, because The Passion was not what Christ preached. He was not a sadist. And because a congregation is not the same as an audience in a picture palace.
Their expectation is different.
And, finally, why in Biblical Epics is Jesus always presented as having no sense of humor?
In any case, I think it is unlikely that George Stevens considered any of this or even had a chance to consider it.
So one wonders what he wanted from his audience with this material. He had a very great and highly developed sense of the audience’s participation in telling a story and in responding to a scene. He is famous for this, was aware of it, and it is obvious in most of his comedies or dramas.
But his sense of this was filmic rather than spiritual. He made pictures whose stories could be made into something personal to the audience, as well as to him, but how is this material personal to him I fail to see, except as an exercise in technique.
To learn how to light the last supper so that it reflected The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, took him several hours of meditation before the set, but did The Trinity actually happen once lit or was it a self-referential camera trick merely?
In the special feature disc is a sequence of Stevens describing the execution of John The Baptist, which he tells from the point of view of Herod and which takes place all in one long sequence, an anonymous dancer in Loie Fuller veils, perhaps Salomé, flitting in and out from an orgy in the next room, the veils and the music dead to him, Herod a lost soul at the end of it.
But is this what we get when we see it? Not I. It is a very good film sequence in theory, but it is too far away in the distance to register from the point of view of Herod, as played by Jose Ferrer, who had it well within his range to play such a scene, and it is over-edited.
Does his insistence on spectacular setting and landscape in this film actually empower the scenes with spiritual content? I like them. They are amazing. But for me they bear no relation to a particular spiritual moment.
I don’t sense George Stevens had any natural affinity for this material, save as an unconscious opportunity to make another big Epic Middle Eastern movie out of doors in Arizona, as he had once done when he was in his 20s, and directed on horseback the rousing tale called Gunga Din. What a lot of fun he had then! What a lot of fun it is to see that movie! In this movie, there is not a trace of fun and not a trace of human comedy. And because of that and because Stevens had such a sense of human comedy you might say there is nothing really human in this movie at all.
He seems to have confused Christianity with Jesus, and to have some sense of Christ as a Christ, but no sense of him a spiritual being or as Jesus, a human who ate.
Why does he make this film?
Was it the attempt of a senior director for a last great adventure?
Did his seriousness of intent put him above himself? The broad base of the mountain of I Remember Mama, A Place In The Sun, and Shane – did that base lead to the foggy peak of grandeurs at the end of Giant? And then on to “important” subjects, such as The Diary Of Anne Frank and this?
And in those grand and important subjects was he reaching past exclusively American themes to world themes and to make movies for international audiences – which he had never done – unless Gunga Din set in the Middle East could be considered international? Was he shooting, God help him, for the “universal”?
For does he really have a relation to this Biblical material beyond reverence for it? That is to say, does he have a personal exploration necessitating this material?
Well, then did C.B DeMille have one in his Biblical Epics? I don’t sense one. And do you really have to have a spiritual affinity with the Bible to make a Biblical Epic then? Otherwise, you’re not allowed?
You know, speaking of DeMille, George Stevens had a tremendous effect on the Directors Guild in bringing down DeMille during the McCarthy hearings. DeMille wanted to depose liberal Joe Mankiewicz from the chair, and gathered a secret cabal to force through a vote and to elbow through a second loyalty oath. But Stevens, who was not politically active, nonetheless came to the meeting, and there was DeMille deliberately mis-pronouncing the ‘Un-American” Jewish names of Fred Zinnemann and Mankiewicz and other Jews in order to prejudice the vote, when Stevens got up and stopped it cold as the conspiracy it was. John Ford stood up next and said, “CB, I admire your work. No one can do what you do. You are part of the great history of this industry. But I don’t like you.” John Huston did likewise. De Mille was defeated because George Stevens had the character to stand up to him.
So the question is: did Stevens make a Biblical Epic to outdo DeMille even at his own game of Biblical Epic?
If so, he did not succeed. Stevens attempted to costume this film in the clothes that might have been worn at the time; he didn’t want the usual Hollywood Biblical outfits. But The Ten Commandments is not just a better acted picture, but a better costumed one, for the simple reason that the actors look comfortable in their costumes and here they look uncomfortable. Did he try to out-De Mille and fail?
Did he even think of that?
Well, whatever the reason, in making such a film he had a challenge, you say?
But I say a challenge is an insufficient and transitory reason to transact a work of art. For every work of art is a challenge. And in art a challenge is never personal. Only technical.
So where in this material lies Stevens’ personal exploration? Where is his soul? Where is his fun?
George Stevens had seen and recorded on film the extermination camp of Dachau shortly after its liberation. He was thunderstruck. He never forgot it. He never understood it. Is this film an extension of Anne Frank in a pleading not to kill Jews, a pleading against bigotry?
Katharine Hepburn in urging Stevens to make comedies again after World War II may have been right, in that with Giant, with Anne Frank and with this picture he has burdened himself with a solemnity beyond his artistic temperament.
But The War had a deep effect on his personal temperament, which, nonetheless, may have not been consonant with his artistic temperament. So did he have a really selfish reason for directing this film? If not, why bother
And do I have a selfish or spiritual exploration to make necessitating my seeing it?
The answer is probably no. For two reasons, one is that I do not go the movies for spiritual awakening, and, two, I am a fallen-away Christian with an active spiritual practice belonging to no religion.
Such movies as Biblical Epics draw huge crowds. This one cost $20,000,000 to make and did not draw huge crowds. It took six years to prepare, nine months to shoot, involved thousands of extras, and a city built in the desert to house them, and Stevens was paid $1,000,000 to make it, the highest salary any director had ever achieved. It was made at the same time as Cleopatra, which cost $40,000,000 but made back its nut on foreign rights alone. Why Stevens’ picture failed I do not know. No sex, no gore, no battles? No Burtons?
No interest in his execution of the material?
The day of Biblical Epics was over?
Until the rise of computer generated effects, perhaps the latter was so. Or perhaps the public’s disappointed curiosity in Cleopatra spoiled Epics for everyone else. The general public was sated?
Anyhow, my concern is not with the general public and what they want or do not want. My concern is solely with the person who is reading this at this moment. My concern is solely to open the door.
To the work of George Stevens and to the possibilities of the nature of the person whose work bears that name.
That’s why we are considering this film before his great dramas and comedies, which chronologically preceded it.
The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s the worst title ever conceived for anything. We are at a disadvantage from the very first word. We are considering it now, so as not have to do so later. We are getting it out of the way.
But the main disadvantage we are at is that the film is available on DVD and not in the movie theatre. For the spectacle of this film is huge. To hope to digest it one must see in a movie house. And all I can do is talk about it here as I have seen it on my TV screen, where George Stevens had no idea when he made it that it would ever play. Many movies work on TV screens. But some don’t. Titanic is a film which on TV simply looks footling.
And this film on TV is impossible to estimate.
We are considering it now because all of his other films can be seen well enough on TV. Yes, they can. This one alone cannot.
It is the only film of him, I would hope one day to see in a movie house, where I saw all the others. Not to see it there, no view of it can be fair.