Movie of the Week: The Greatest Story Ever Told by George Stevens 1965
Old Testament: Psalm 110
New Testament: John 1:1-18
Producer/Director: George Stevens
Premiere: February 15, 1965
Running Time: 260 minutes
Parent Guide/Rating: G
Watch The Greatest Story Ever Told:
Free onAmazon Prime and at the library; $2.99 rental on Youtube;
Potential link: https://ok.ru/video/80912911076
In October 1961, producer, Samuel Bronston, released King of Kings – a kind of homage to the earlier silent movie of the same name (with the added definite article). Before that movie was released, George Stevens was already making plans for a biblical epic of his own that he would title The Greatest Story Ever Told. This movie is an epic by any standard: four hours long, appearances from some of the most famous actors in the history of cinema (Pat Boone, Angela Lansbury, Sidney Poitier, John Wayne, and Shelley Winters just to name a few), and an impressive-for-the-time $20 million budget. The movie was also nominated for five Academy Awards. W. Barnes Tatum writes of the movie, “Seemingly, Stevens meant his film to be the greatest version of the greatest story.”
There are several differences between Stevens’ movie and previous Gospel-inspired projects, but especially notable is Stevens’ reliance on the Gospel of John rather than the Synoptics. John’s influence is obvious from the very beginning of the movie which begins with the opening lines of John: “In the beginning was the word.”
Contrary to The King of Kings, Satan appears throughout the movie. It provides the viewer a good opportunity to reflect on the larger, spiritual battles that Jesus faced throughout his ministry. This is consistent with Stevens’ desire to make The Greatest Story Ever Told a film emphasizing ideas rather than the action-driven ethos of other biblical movies. Stevens described his vision for the film: “We are doing simply the story of Jesus, with no interruptions for theatrical embroideries. Our contracts are with ideas rather than spectacle.” Such an endeavor makes the movie a wonderful opportunity for our question of Ignatian contemplation. As you watch the movie, try to embed yourself into the story.
Following an introduction of lengthy credits, The Greatest Story Ever Told begins with the iconic words of the opening of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel is the most unique of the four Gospels. Its retelling of the story of Jesus differs from the other three in several ways. As stated above, it is this Gospel that Stevens heavily relies on in his telling of the story. In the opening to his commentary on John, New Testament scholar Leon Morris describes John this way.
“I like the comparison of John’s Gospel to a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. It’s both simple and profound. It is for the eeriest beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never failing. It is a simple Gospel. The humblest believer can read it and understand it and profit from it . . . But that is not the whole story . . . There are unplumbed depths in the limpid clarity of this writing. What at first appears obvious is presently seen to pose problems.”
Perhaps the same can be said of Stevens’ treatment of Jesus in his epic. There is a superficial level of storytelling, but beneath that surface lie some of the most complex and important questions for all humanity.
As we begin the second full week of Lent, take some time to reflect on the opening chapter of John. “In the beginning was the Word.” This phrase has much to say about Jesus, and we would do well to spend time considering all that is implied by this statement. It speaks of Jesus’ eternality – Jesus was there in the beginning with Yahweh. John goes on to say that Jesus “became human” (NLT), “became flesh” (NIV), or“moved into the neighborhood” (Message) in verse 14. Last week we spent some time considering Jesus as man, but we also must remember that it was God who became man. We call this event, in theological terms, incarnation. God became human. He entered into this sinful world to show his people what it means to be human. Theologian Stanley Grenz offers this conclusion regarding the incarnation: “In this one historical, personal life we find revealed who God is and who we are to be – true deity and true humanity. As this human being, Jesus is divine.”
Spend some time in prayer thanking Jesus for coming to earth and becoming human. What a powerful encouragement it is for us to know that Jesus knows what it is like to be human. Here is a list of descriptions that Paul uses of Jesus in Colossians 1. Mediate on the significance of each one. Colossians 1:15-20 NLT
 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 3rd ed. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 95.
 Quoted in Ibid., 96.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Revised Edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 3.
 Stanley J. Grenz, 2nd ed., Theology for the Community of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 310-311.