Right Here in Hollywood: The Greatest Story Ever Told, the American West and the American Film Worker

Abstract: The 1950s and 1960s saw a swell of films shot on location and abroad, often big-budget, widescreen epic films. These runaway productions represented a practical financial decision for Hollywood studios, incentivized by tax breaks, government subsidies, frozen funds and rising union salaries in the U.S. When George Stevens began pre-production on his Biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965),he was well aware of both the power of location shooting as bearer of textual meaning and provider of jobs and opted to shoot the entire film in the U.S. Stevens eschewed the conventional aesthetic realism and economic logic that sent many filmmakers to foreign locales and instead he stressed that the American Southwest was the ideal setting for this Biblical story and that the professionalism of the more expensive American film workers was unparalleled. The locations and publicity for The Greatest Story Ever Told position it, despite its Biblical setting in Western Asia, as an American story and an accomplishment of domestic filmmaking. Stevens’s visual choices and the production history reveal an uneasy attempt to balance the spirituality of the religious story with the demands of capitalism and nationalistic ideals. Production documents from the Margaret Herrick Library illuminate the transformation of natural environments in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and the interactions with extras and the Screen Extras Guild. Below-the-line unions scrambled to negotiate for more union jobs on the film, but in order to pay for union workers George Stevens Productions turned to inexpensive Native American labor to keep the cost of extras within budget – a casting choice which created yet another layer of contradiction between the profilmic space of production and the filmic space onscreen.