Turner Movie Classics decided to kick off Easter with an abject lesson in art and life for us all. The movie is 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” One of the very greatest of American film directors was George Stevens, who specialized in smart comedies (the Hepburn/Tracy classic “Woman of the Year”), light-hearted adventure films (“Gunga Din”) and musicals (“Swing Time,” the best in the Astaire-Rogers canon). Then, as wonderfully told in the documentary “Five Came Back,” he joined fellow directing greats John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra in documenting World War II for the public, the troops, and posterity at the high cost, for all of them, of their emotional and mental health. (Wyler and Ford also suffered serious service-related injuries).
Stevens, though, drew the assignment of filming the horrors at the liberated extermination camps. When he returned to Hollywood, he didn’t feel light-hearted any more. From then on he directed dramas with serious themes, and they were his best films, like “Shane,” “Giant,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Finally, he took on his most daunting challenge, filming the life of Christ with an all-star cast befitting of the project’s importance. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is terrible; I find the film unwatchable, and I’m not alone. Imagine the embarrassment of titling your movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and watching to turn out to be one of the worst movies ever made.
The bomb even has a special kick at the end when John Wayne appears as a Roman centurion staring up at Jesus on the cross, and says in the Duke’s trademark drawl, “Surely this man was the son of God!”
The Duke could shrug off, after all the resulting mockery; he had been more embarrassed playing Genghis Kahn throughout an entire film, Howard Hughes’ camp classic “The Conqueror.”
George Stevens, however, wasn’t used to bombing. The movie was a critical and box office bust, and the fiasco sent Stevens into retirement for five years. When he finally tried again, the director’s heart not only wasn’t light, it wasn’t in his work any more. “The Only Game in Town,” with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, was an even bigger disaster than “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” though it’s easier to sit though. After all, it’s an hour shorter, and John Wayne doesn’t show up as a centurion.
The life lessons? Hubris and humility…don’t get cocky. Next: Nobody is too good or talented to fail, even at what they are best at. Finally: Aim for the stars, but be prepared to crash and burn.
1. Speaking of Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank,” there was a weird episode on Ann Althouse’s blog. In one post she quoted David Mamet in his just-published book, as saying in part,
Anne has many and large holes in her cultural literacy, especially regarding film. Her commentary left it open to question whether she really believed that Hackett and Goodrich had written a comedy based on Frank’s diary (They wrote a Tony Award-winning drama as well as the acclaimed film based on it), and passed on several comments by readers who took Mamet literally as well. An example: “Joan Rivers did an interview once about what things should never be the fodder for humor….Perhaps, younger people today are distanced enough from it for a sitcom about a Jewish family hiding in an attic for over two years who are then found and killed by the Nazis to not be in poor taste.” Another “Turning the Diary of Ann Frank into a comedy is a pretty loathsome thing to do. Things like Hogan’s Heroes worked because the Nazis were the main objects of the jokes. The victims of the Nazis aren’t.” There are others. Why would Ann let those comments through to make the commenters look like fools, especially since she helped lead them astray? Or is she, as I very much suspect, unfamiliar with the movie (which is moving and excellent)? Continue reading