George Stevens' vision of the story has a stark majesty, and is taken at a leisurely pace; it is also quite verbal, with some of the major events in the gospels not pictured, but spoken of instead.
Filmed in Arizona and Utah, the cinematography by Loyal Griggs, who took over from William Mellor when Mellor passed away during filming, is glorious. There are scenes that have the composition and balance a fine painting, with extraordinary detail, often framed by doorways or windows, and it's a film I never tire of just looking at. Graphic artists should make a point to see this film, as there is much that can be learned from it. Alfred Newman also wrote a lovely score (with a little help from G. F. Handel) which adds to the aesthetic appeal of this film.
In the huge star-studded cast, some performances are truly memorable, like Claude Rains as a bitter and devious Herod, and Jose Ferrer excellent as his son Herod Antipas; Charlton Heston's ferocious, wild-man John the Baptist is impassioned and perhaps more like the actual Baptist than some of the tamer portrayals.
With its huge budget (over 20 million in 1965 dollars) it was a critical and commercial failure when it was released, but it has had a long life, and is being watched today while some successful films of the mid-'60s quite forgotten, and will continue to be appreciated by everyone who likes Bible epics. It was however, nominated for 4 Academy Awards: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score, losing out in all those categories to "Doctor Zhivago". There is "artistic license" taken with the story, but overall, it is a reverential, fairly accurate telling.
Total running time is 196 minutes.
One particular scene I found thoroughly original, even brilliant: Pilate's asking Jesus, "What is truth?" Here, Telly Savalas as Pilate delivers up the line rhetorically, not ranting like his counterpart in J of N.
The exchanges between the great Claude Rains (Herod) and the Magi are also excellent.
There is humor as well, such as Pilate and Herod Antippas sizing each other up; John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) dunking Herod's soldiers in the Jordan bidding them to "repent"; and several other instances.
The movie is filled with many, many likewise appealing vignettes. Not that The Greatest Story Ever Told has no flaws; there are quite a few. But it does hold up well after almost forty years.
This DVD includes fascinating behind-the-scenes features and interviews.
I highly recommend this movie.