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Sunday, March 31, 2013

One of the GREAT Movie Scenes of All Time: "Lazarus, Arise!" George Stevens' Response to Dachau

George Stevens' 1965 "The Greatest Story Ever Told" contains one of THE great movie scenes of all time, "Lazarus, arise!"

The film itself is long, lavish, with a big, big cast. It was one of the most expensive films ever made, and it took forever to make. Because it is slow-moving, many people hate it.

I love "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and I'd recommend it to anyone who is looking for an art film treatment of the life of Christ.

Is it fast moving? No, it is not. If you want "Robocop," this isn't your movie.

The slowness of this movie provides thoughtful people ample time to think about the history-shaping words being said, to soak up the beauty of the film itself.

Does Stevens attempt to recreate the sense one gets from looking at beautiful religious paintings? Yes. If you are one of those people who freeze frames beautiful shots, this is your movie.

Do big name stars appear in small roles? Yes. The most notorious cameo: John Wayne plays the Roman centurion who states, "Truly this man was the son of God." Yes it is hard not to giggle when you hear the Duke's distinctive, macho, Western drawl pronounce those words. For me that nanosecond of comic relief is not a bad thing.

The big name stars here are making a meta statement. George Stevens was moved to make the ultimate cinematic life of Christ by his experience of being among the first to document what happened at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp. Coincidentally, Dachau was where Nazis imprisoned many Polish and German Catholic priests. It was called the largest monastery in Germany. Stevens first made "Diary of Anne Frank." Then he made "The Greatest Story Ever Told." These films were his defiance of Nazism, of war, of death.

Big name stars, like John Wayne, wanted to appear in even the tiniest of roles, because they sensed that Stevens was doing something special. If you can appreciate the big name cameos for what they are – Hollywood, the world's most powerful storytelling community, coming together to tell a story that matters – they will enhance the movie for you, rather than lessen it.

Max von Sydow gives the best performance of Jesus ever committed to film. If he never did anything else, he could die proud because of the truth he embodied in this part.

Just the look on von Sydow's face in his first scene – when he is being baptized by John – a look that is caring, human, loving, confused, pained, as he begins to realize what his life holds in store for him – is in itself marvelous, jewel-like in its purity, and unlike anything else I've ever seen an actor be able to do.

Just the look on Max von Sydow's face when he is baptized by John is worth seeing the film for
David McCallum is a complex, agonized Judas. He makes you feel for him. His death, as a sacrifice, is brilliant.

Charlton Heston captured the "take no prisoners" approach of the Biblical John the Baptist.

Donald Pleasance is the best Satan ever put on film. He's just an average, sort of nice guy who wants you to eat some food when you are hungry ... that's all. Harmless, really.

There are many scenes I would never want to have missed: the "lilies of the field" scene, John baptizing Jesus, Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus calling Matthew.

There are many effects that work perfectly for me: the handling of sound when Jesus is carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa, for example.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" racks up a very low 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I think Christophobia plays a role. Had Stevens made a similar movie about Buddha, it would be considered a classic.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the film when it came out. I was disappointed that Max von Sydow wasn't the strange Jesus of Bergman's The Magician. Disappointed too by its length and familiarity. I felt that it was nothing but what the nuns told me. I was reading Kerouac and smoking dope and dreaming about everything but Jesus.

    But your reminder that Stevens was at Dachau will make me see the film again. Tomorrow or the next day.