- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

As the national release date approached for the most sensational attraction of the new year, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” George Stevens Jr. agreed to reminisce about “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the famous 1965 movie about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ directed by his father, George Stevens.

The Gibson dramatization, evidently confined to the final hours of Jesus’ life, has generated a whirlwind of publicity. A far more circumspect sense of anticipation awaited “Greatest Story,” estimated at the time to be the most expensive Hollywood production ever filmed in the United States, at about $20 million, which would correspond to about $100 to $125 million today.

When the movie version of “Greatest Story” was announced, it was considered newsworthy that George Stevens, the prestige director of “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” during the 1950s, could command a salary of $1 million (rivaling Elizabeth Taylor’s price for impersonating Cleopatra), plus a percentage of net profits.

“I would have a Gulfstream jet if there had been net profits,” George Stevens Jr. quips in a phone conversation.

Mr. Stevens has been based in Washington since 1962, when he was hired by Edward R. Murrow, then director of the U.S. Information Agency, to supervise the agency’s motion picture office. “Greatest Story” was “one of those pictures that can never catch up if it isn’t successful when first released,” he says. “I regret to say it will never be profitable.”

He explains: “The timing was not opportune. … ‘Greatest Story’ came toward the end of a cycle of epic films, including a lot of films with biblical subjects. It was just at the beginning of a lot of social unrest. Filmmaking fashions were changing. I don’t think it was intentional, but not long before the premiere, Time magazine ran a famous cover story that asked the question, ‘Is God Dead?’ That didn’t seem very encouraging at the time.”

To put the fashion drift in perspective, “Greatest Story” got under way soon after “Ben-Hur” had dominated the 1959 Academy Awards and slightly before the release of “Spartacus.” By the time “Greatest Story” was completed, half a decade later, the French new wave was fresh, the Beatles had appeared in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and younger filmmakers were avid to work quickly and blithely rather than slowly and portentously.

Mr. Stevens recalls that his father turned promptly to “Greatest Story” after the release of “Anne Frank” in 1959. Based on an established best seller by a Reader’s Digest editor and former pulp novelist named Fulton Oursler, “Greatest Story” had been acquired by 20th Century Fox soon after its publication. “It was a dream project for Spyros Skouras, the chairman of the board,” Mr. Stevens says. “He was Greek and very religious. He wanted to see the book filmed by a major director.”

Pre-production work and the early screenplay drafts commenced at Fox, but the executive upheavals stemming from the tribulations of “Cleopatra” obliged the project to regroup more or less intact under the auspices of United Artists.

By that time, George Stevens Jr. had been offered the job in Washington. He had rejected it initially, out of loyalty to his father, who didn’t want that at all. “When I told him I had turned down Murrow,” Mr. Stevens recalls, “my father looked at me intently and said, ‘You have to do it.’ He sensed that it was a way for me to take a different path.”

During the 1950s, Mr. Stevens had become “sort of my dad’s right hand.” He was involved in the script and every aspect of preparation. “It was an ambitious process,” he explains. “We had a researcher who had also worked with us on ‘Anne Frank.’ I still have an elaborate chart somewhere that compared the Gospel stories side by side. There was all this debate in religious and scholarly circles about the differences in the Gospel books. Dad read a lot, talked to a lot of people, many of them Catholic and Jewish leaders, in order to enlarge his understanding. My recollection is that the Catholic creed derived from the Gospel according to John, the book that also demanded the most caution, since it had been used by anti-Semites to justify their historical prejudices.”

Mr. Stevens had accompanied his father and other associates on a trip to Rome and the Middle East in 1960. They had an audience with the pope and a similar encounter in Istanbul with the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. They scouted locations in Jordan and Israel, ultimately rejected by the director.

“He felt that part of the world had been eroded by the centuries,” Mr. Stevens says. “The landscapes had probably changed so much that they didn’t afford the natural vistas that might have existed 2,000 years ago. He did observe a certain similarity to the American Southwest and followed that intuition. He was aware that the associations with movie Westerns might be a problem. He vowed that he was going to find places that John Ford hadn’t immortalized.” In fact, there are scenes of “Greatest Story” clearly within shouting distance of Mr. Ford’s beloved Monument Valley.

“As part of our preliminary research trip,” Mr. Stevens recalls, “we went to Munich to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau. Warning signs went up there. At that time, a farmer or carpenter or something directed it and played Jesus. It was violently anti-Semitic. I think they eventually cleaned up their act, but it was a genuine item of concern for us and the religious leaders we consulted.”

George Stevens Jr. does not remember his gentile father as a religious man. “The story had a powerful humanitarian hold on him,” the son explains. “All of us are molded by life experiences. He returned from World War II profoundly changed. Not just by the fighting he had seen but also by being with the first Army unit to enter the Dachau camp. That in particular caused him to do a lot of thinking. One result of it was his desire to do the Christ story.”

Mr. Stevens professes to be “very fond” of the film. “I think it’s a beautiful telling of the story,” he reflects. “It was stunning on the large screen. My dad wanted imagery to fill the biggest possible screen, and he encouraged Panavision into developing some new 70mm lenses.

“At the same time, he wanted to be very tasteful and reverential in his evocation of the Biblical period. At that time, it was also important to tell a story acceptable to the truest believers and rational, sympathetic nonbelievers. That was one reason to visualize the miracles as extraordinary acts of faith rather than movie special effects that would make the wondrous look somehow easy for this man.”

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