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Saturday May 18th 2024

The Greatest Story Ever Told | 1965

The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: Gunsight Butte, Padre Bay, Utah
The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: Jesus talks to the apostles as they spend the night under a bridge: Gunsight Butte, Padre Bay, Utah | Photograph: Shutterstock / Jonathan Manjeot

The vast budget of this rather underrated epic demanded stars, lots of them, but since there were no big names in the main roles, a series of absurdly distracting cameos disrupts the film.

Director George Stevens wanted to film in Israel but practical considerations, and the sway of unions, resulted in a decision to film entirely on US soil.

in 1965, Stevens told The New York Times "Unfortunately some of the landscapes around Jerusalem were exciting, but many had been worn down through the years by erosion and man, invaders and wars, to places of less spectacular aspects."

Or, as the enthusiastic press release put it, it was discovered that “Utah looks more like the Holy Land than the Holy Land”.

Well, it doesn’t. It looks like the American Southwest.

But that’s no bad thing. Although the locations are geographically inaccurate, they certainly convey the mythic grandeur Stevens wanted – which is sadly missing from the horribly studio-bound crucifixion scene, filmed at Desilu Culver Studios – now the Culver Studios in Culver City, Los Angeles, after bad weather closed down location shooting.

The area around Moab, Utah, forms the backdrop to most of the movie, with the Colorado River standing in for the ‘River Jordan’ and Navajo people taking time off from playing Sioux, Cheyenne and Apaches to become Roman soldiers and Judeans.

The baptism of Christ (Max von Sydow)  by John the Baptist (Charlton Heston) was filmed at a place called The Crossing of the Fathers, a series of sand bars used as a traditional crossing of the Colorado in Kane County, Utah.

Since the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966, it’s now 400 feet beneath the waters of Lake Powell at Padre Point.

The opening of the dam had been held up for the shoot and, after filming as the area was flooded, several of the film’s locations disappeared under the waters of Lake Powell.

Among those is the spot where the apostles rest beneath a wooden bridge, and are joined by James the Younger (Michael Anderson Jr), overlooked by Gunsight Butte – which you can still see towering above the waters.

The town of ‘Bethlehem’ was constructed near Moab between the spectacular Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: Pyramid Lake, Nevada
The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: 'Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee': Pyramid Lake, Nevada | Photograph: Shutterstock / Terry W Ryder

‘Capurnaum’ on the ‘Sea of Galilee', was built on the shore of Pyramid Lake, in Nevada, 40 miles northeast of Reno, with a background of snow-capped mountains.

The strange rock formation rising from the lake here isn’t the famous natural 'pyramid', which gives the lake its name, but one of the oddly-shaped outcrops of tufa on its eastern shore. Scenes for John Huston’s The Misfits, with Marylin Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift had been filmed at Quail Canyon nearby in 1961.

The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Greatest Story Ever Told film location: the 'Sermon on the Mount': Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Utah | Photograph: Shutterstock / Tokelau

'The Sermon on the Mount' is given atop the suitably breathtaking setting of the Green River Overlook, Island in the Sky, west of Grand View Point Road, in Canyonlands National Park, about 20 miles southwest of Moab.

California’s barren Death Valley was a natural setting for Jesus's 40-day journey into the wilderness.

When filming began to fall behind schedule, Stevens asked for a little help. The scenes with Herod the Great were filmed by David Lean, who cast Claude Rains with whom he’d worked on Lawrence of Arabia, in what turned out to be his final film.