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The Greatest Story Ever Told is a 1965 American epic film produced and directed by George Stevens. It is a retelling of the Biblical account about Jesus of Nazareth, from the Nativity through to the Ascension. Along with the ensemble cast, it is Claude Rains's final film role.


From his birth in Bethlehem to his death and eventual resurrection, the life of Jesus Christ is given the all-star treatment in this epic retelling. Major aspects of Christ's life are touched upon, including the execution of all the newborn males in Egypt by King Herod, Christ's baptism by John the Baptist, and the betrayal by Judas after the Last Supper that eventually leads to Christ's crucifixion and miraculous return.


Three wise men (magi) follow a brightly shining star from Asia to Jerusalem in search of a newborn king. They are summoned by King Herod the Great, whose advisers inform him of a Messiah mentioned in various prophecies. When Herod remembers that the prophecy names nearby Bethlehem as the child's birthplace, he sends the Magi there to confirm the child's existence—and secretly sends guards to follow them and "keep [him] informed." In Bethlehem, the Magi find a married couple—Mary and Joseph—laying their newborn son in a manger. Mary states that his name is Jesus. As the local shepherds watch, the Magi present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant. After observing the distant spies' departure, the magi leave as an angel's voice warns Joseph to "take the child" and "flee".

The spies inform Herod, who decides to kill the child. He orders the death of every newborn boy in Bethlehem, and dies shortly after being informed that apparently "not one is alive". However, Joseph and Mary have escaped into Egypt with Jesus; when a messenger informs them and others of Herod's death, they return to their hometown of Nazareth.

A pro-Israel rebellion breaks out in Jerusalem against Herod's son, Herod Antipas, but the conflict is quickly quashed. Herod's kingdom is divided, Judea is placed under a governor, and Herod becomes of tetrarch of Galilee and the Jordan River. Both he and the Romans are convinced that the Messiah the troubled people cry for is "someone who will never come".

Many years later, a prophet named John the Baptist appears and preaches at the Jordan, baptizing many who come to repent. When a grown Jesus appears to him, John baptizes him. Jesus then ascends into the nearby desert mountains, where he finds a cave in which resides a mysterious hermit—a personification of Satan. The Dark Hermit tempts Jesus three times, but each temptation is overcome by Jesus, who leaves and continues climbing as John's message echoes in his mind.

He returns to the valley, where he tells the Baptist that he is returning to Galilee. Four men—Judas Iscariot and the Galilean fishermen Andrew, Peter, and John—ask to go with him; Jesus welcomes them, promising to make them "fishers of men". When they rest under a bridge, he gives parables and other teachings, which attract the attention of a passing young man named James; he asks to join them the next morning, and Jesus welcomes him. The group comes near Jerusalem, and Jesus says that "there will come a time to enter". They rest at a home in Bethany occupied by Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus asks Jesus if he could join him, but cannot bring himself to leave all he has; before leaving, Jesus promises Lazarus that he will not forget him.

The group soon arrives at Capernaum, where they meet James's brother Matthew, a tax collector whom Jesus soon asks to join them. After some thought, Matthew does so. In the local synagogue, Jesus teaches again, and miraculously helps a crippled man to walk again. Upon seeing this, many begin to follow Jesus on his journey and gather to listen to his teachings.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem priests and Pharisees are troubled by the continuing influence and preaching of the Baptist, while the governor Pontius Pilate wishes only to maintain peace. Since the Jordan is ruled by Herod, he allows the priests to inform him. When he hears that the Baptist is speaking of a Messiah, Herod sends soldiers to arrest him. Simon the Zealot informs Jesus and his disciples of the Baptist's arrest; he is welcomed as one.

The fame of Jesus begins to spread across the land and two more men, named Thaddeus and Thomas, join him. In Jerusalem, the priests become suspicious of Jesus and the curing of the cripple, and send a group to Capernaum to investigate--among them the Pharisees Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Herod hears rumors about an army due to the multitudes that follow Jesus, and questions John the Baptist about him. Herod begins to consider killing the Baptist, with his wife's encouragement--she herself is the ex-wife of Herod's brother, and has been attacked by John for being adulterous.

Jesus is soon asked to return to Capernaum by another man named James. Crowds gather and celebrate his return, something that is noticed by the Pharisees who are present and the returned Dark Hermit. Jesus then defends a woman caught in the act of adultery, who identifies herself as "Mary of Magdalene". Among the crowd that gathers as he moves away is a sick woman who is cured when she touches his clothes. Both of these instances cause many to have faith in Jesus.

Herod begins to wonder about Jesus, and the Baptist confirms that Jesus has escaped from the massacre ordered by Herod's father. Herod then decides to finally kill the Baptist by beheading, which occurs while Salome, Herod's stepdaughter by his wife's first marriage, dances for him. When the Baptist is dead, Herod sends soldiers to arrest Jesus.

Jesus gives a sermon on a mountain to a great crowd, while Pilate and the Pharisees hear of many of Jesus's miracles: turning water into wine, feeding five thousand people, and walking on water. While resting, Jesus asks his disciples who they and others say that he is: they give many answers, and Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, prompting Jesus to anoint him as "the rock on which [he] will build [his] church".

At Nazareth, the people refuse to believe in Jesus and his miracles and demand to see for themselves by bringing a blind man named Aram and demanding that Jesus make him see. When he does not, the people are disgusted when he calls himself the Son of God, and briefly stone him. Jesus reunites with his mother, along with a sick Lazarus and his sisters. Andrew and Nathaniel escort Lazarus home to Bethany, while Jesus and the others flee from Herod's approaching soldiers, but not before Jesus heals Aram's sight. When informed that Lazarus is dying, Jesus does not go immediately to Bethany, but to the Jordan where the group gives a prayer. Andrew and Nathaniel return, informing them that Lazarus has died, and Jesus then goes to Bethany where he brings Lazarus back to life, a miracle that amazes the witnessing Jerusalem citizens, but concerns the Pharisees.

Part II Edit Judas questions why Mary Magdalene is anointing Jesus with expensive oil, and states she is preparing him for his death. Jesus then dons a new garment, and rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. In the courtyard of the Temple, Jesus drives the merchants and money changers away, and the large crowd prevents the Pharisees from arresting Jesus, an action ordered even though it is Passover. He teaches in the Temple courtyard, and leaves when Pilate dispatches soldiers to restore peace and close the gates. Many of the Temple's crowd are killed as a result.

While the disciples gather to prepare and partake in an evening meal, Judas leaves and promises to hand Jesus over to the Pharisees on the condition that no harm comes to him. The Dark Hermit's presence indicates approaching danger. When Judas returns to the meal, Jesus announces to all that one of them will betray him, that by morning Peter will deny three times that he even knows Jesus, and gives a farewell discourse. Jesus then gives bread and wine to the disciples, and tells Judas before he leaves again to "do quickly what [he has] to do".

Jesus then prays at Gethsemane while Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver to lead soldiers to arrest Jesus. When they arrive, Judas kisses Jesus, and Jesus orders Peter to "put back [his] sword". Jesus is put on trial before the Sanhedrin, and Aram appears as one of the questioned witnesses. Most of the members are present, as Nicodemus—who refuses to take part—notices that many (including Joseph of Arimathea) are absent. Meanwhile, the Hermit is outside and asks the nearby Peter if he knows Jesus. Peter denies it twice and leaves. When Caiaphas asks Jesus if he is the Christ, Jesus's reply causes the members to condemn him.

The Pharisees and Caiaphas bring Jesus to the tired Pilate, who after questioning Jesus—and briefly speaking with his wife—finds no guilt in Jesus. Since Galilee is under Herod's authority, Jesus is sent to Herod, though he and his soldiers merely ridicule him and send him back to Pilate. As Jesus is escorted back to Herod, the Hermit continues to observe, and Peter once again denies Jesus, as a remorseful Judas looks on.

In the morning, Pilate presents Jesus before the assembled crowd, and the Hermit begins various cries for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate offers compromises: that Jesus merely be scourged, and then the release of a prisoner of the crowd's choice. They choose the supposed murderer Barabbas instead. Pilate then asks Jesus if he has anything to say; Jesus merely states that his kingdom is "not of this world", something that the Hermit and others claim is a challenge of the authority of Rome the Roman emperor. With no other choice, Pilate reluctantly orders Jesus to be crucified.

Jesus then carries his cross through Jerusalem while the crowd looks on. When he collapses, a woman wipes his face and he reassures to the women of Jerusalem. Soon, the soldiers allow a man named Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry the cross when no one else will. At Golgotha, Jesus is stripped and nailed to the cross, which is then raised between those of two other men while Judas throws his silver into the Temple and throws himself into the fire of the nearby altar. He asks God to "forgive them, for they know not what they do", and leaves his mother in the care of John. While one of the thieves asks Jesus to save them, the other accepts his punishment and asks for Jesus to remember him, a promise that Jesus give to him. As the sky darkens, Jesus ask why God has forsaken him, is offered wine in a sponge, and dies before a storm emerges. As an earthquake begins, a centurion states that "truly this man was the son of God".

Peter mourns Jesus while he is laid to rest in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The Pharisees ask for Pilate to place guards around the tomb and seal it to prevent a possible theft of the corpse that could potentially fulfill a prophecy of resurrection; Pilate agrees, but on the morning of the third day the guards discover the tomb is open and empty. Meanwhile, though Thomas has weakened faith, Mary Magdalene—along with Peter and others—recall the prophecy and run to see the empty tomb. Word quickly spreads throughout Jerusalem, the miraculous event bewildering the Pharisees. Caiaphas claims that "the whole thing will be forgotten in a week", while an elder scribe doubts this.

Jesus ascends to heaven before his disciples, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and others, leaving them with his final commands as a clouds engulfs him. He then states that he will always be with them, "even unto the end of the world".


  • Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ
  • Dorothy McGuire as the Virgin Mary
  • Charlton Heston as John the Baptist
  • Claude Rains as Herod the Great
  • José Ferrer as Herod Antipas
  • Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate
  • Martin Landau as Caiaphas
  • David McCallum as Judas Iscariot
  • Donald Pleasence as "The Dark Hermit" (a personification of Satan)
  • Michael Anderson Jr. as James the Just
  • Roddy McDowall as Matthew
  • Joanna Dunham as Mary Magdalene
  • Joseph Schildkraut as Nicodemus
  • Ed Wynn as "Old Aram"