The Duke as Roman Centurion? Not So Much.

As my Eastern orthodox friend would always say on Easter, “Christos Voskrese!” – which means “Christ Has Risen!” It’s the most important phrase on the most important day of the Christian calendar. On this Easter Monday, I would like to extend my best wishes to all of you, as well as to our readers who are in the midst of Passover.

Normally, I would devote this time of the year on this blog to discussing some religious movie, perhaps posting a review of one as I usually do, but instead, today I just want to mention one particular scene of a certain film that generally draws laughs. Unfortunately, the movie is The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the scene in question is the climactic crucifixion near the end of the film.

As heavily flawed as this film is, I still find myself watching it every year. I guess I saw it on television once when I was little, so for me, Easter would not be the same without its star-studded yet horribly miscast goodness in my life. George Stevens, the director, set out to make an accurate depiction of the life, times, and death of Jesus Christ, and he succeeded in that respect, as no one has ever called into question the authenticity of the film, but what people can shoot some holes at is the casting: some of the worst choices imaginable are preserved forever on celluloid -  and now in high-definition with a Blu-Ray release (yikes!).

Okay, the movie per se  is not terrible and some of the performances are actually pretty good. Charlton Heston as John the Baptist and Claude Raines as Herod the Great stand out, and even Max Von Sydow as Jesus is not that bad, except when he introduces himself to John during his first scene as “Jeezus”. There is also another gut-wrenching scene after the birth, when one of the Three Wise Men asks the Virgin Mary what the child’s name is, and she says it in a near-Brooklyn accent, though Dorothy McGuire is not even from New York. Go figure.

So, now let’s move on to the subject of this post: John Wayne. The Duke was cast as the Roman centurion responsible for overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus. At first glance, this is not necessarily a terrible choice: after all, a centurion is supposed to be a big, strong, strapping kinda guy. On this much, the Duke certainly delivers…he also provides his name, which sells movies, as that is what the director had in mind when he cast every marquee actor under the sun in some way in this film. Wayne’s scenes are very brief and he has only one line – although it is perhaps the single most important one in the motion picture.

Before I rip it to shreds, let me just say that John Wayne is one of my favorite actors of all-time, but that does not save the scene from inducing a mighty cringe. His line was supposed to be simple and direct. As Jesus dies on the cross, with the wind howling, rain falling, and dramatic music rising, the Roman centurion declares, “Truly this man was the son of God.”

Simple enough, right? How can anyone mess that up? Apparently, the Duke was not too thrilled about working on this film under Stevens, so he kept flubbing the line and saying it too generically. Finally, after numerous re-takes, Stevens yelled at Wayne, telling him to “Put some awe into it!” because of how important the scene would be. Annoyed and angry, Wayne took the direction literally, and when filming began, announced sarcastically in his Midwestern cowboy drawl, “AWE! Truly this man was the son of God!

The only thing more hilarious was the fact that THIS end up being the take incorporated in the final cut of the film. I guess all the other takes were so AWE-ful that Stevens’ only choice was to use this one.

You may be able to get through most of the film without cringing—if so, God bless you. But I dare you to make it through this scene without going, “What the f***?!”

Thank you John Wayne for providing us with this amazing piece of movie trivia and a humorous way to celebrate this Easter season. Have a great day, everyone!

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For those of you who want to waste spend nearly four hours of you life on this who’s-who of big stars, go for it—you won’t be too disappointed. The Greatest Story Ever Told stars Max Von Sydow as Jesus, with a supporting cast of Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Van Heflin, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, Pat Boone, David McCallum, Roddy McDowell, Dorothy McGuire, Donald Pleasance, Sidney Poitier, Claude Raines, Telly Savalas, John Wayne, Shelley Winters, and many others. It also boasts an excellent soundtrack by Alfred Newman.

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