Sunday, 27 November 2011


Directed by George Stevens (with a little help from David Lean and Jean Negulesco), this film is often maligned as being elephantine in production and derided for some of its casting. The first charge is totally unfair although the MTV generation will undoubtably find it strains their attention span at 199 minutes. The casting, it is true, does raise the odd eyebrow and the occasional smile : Pat Boone as an angel and the infamous scenes involving John Wayne as the centurion at the crucifixion telling us that "Truly this is the son of Gad!". Of course, the film has also been criticised as being too pious. But this wasn't made for unbelievers. As far as the production goes the film shuns any attempt at historical realism in favour of a very attractive pictorial stylisation. Religious paintings of the past often eschewed realism and one of the strengths of Steven's film is that scene after scene has the quality of a beautiful religious tableaux or icon. Despite the smiles resulting from the aforementioned casting the film has some wonderful performances - Donald Pleasence as the Devil, Claude Rains as a rather reptilian Herod the Great, Victor Buono as a cynical member of the Sanhedrin and Sydney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene among them. The disciples are a rather bland lot despite the presence of John Considine and David Macallum. Max Von Sydow as Jesus is more problematical. The mighty Swede is among the finest actors in films and there can be little doubt that in a more naturalistic production he would have been among the greatest film Christs of all time but while there is absolutely nothing wrong with his performance within the context of the film, he is - with his designer stubble beard - the Jesus of a great painting (the film is framed by shots of Sydow in a painting) rather than a great film. Despite the feeling I was walking through an art gallery rather than sitting watching a film I found much of the film very beautiful and very moving and I think Stevens only just misses greatness. Rating ****

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