Nazareth is under water now. So is the tomb of Lazarus, the gate to Lazarus' house and gate of Jerusalem that leads to Bethany.
In March, 1963, the Colorado River backed up behind the giant Glen Canyon Dam and the water rose flooding the Glen Canyon Basin, which had once housed six hundred and fifty to fifteen hundred people while they toiled in George Stevens inspiring motion picture, The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Those who were there, who froze and worked and watched numbly on the sidelines as the temperature hovered between zero and 20 degrees, recall with bitter-sweet emotions the mammoth epic, the making of the story of Jesus Christ. The canyon was inaccessible ... they were constantly fighting the weather and time ... time ... they had so little time before the dam would be completed. The tragedies of the filming, the illness, the loneliness, the stark cruel beauty of the place still haunt everyone who was there.
The workmen on the dam, wearing steel helmets, poured concrete and watched the frantic action in the canyon below. The simple story of Christ, which occurred almost two thousand years ago, was silhouetted against a behemoth of contemporary man. Who would finish first - the actors racing against time or the engineers pouring five million cubic yards of concrete?
It is almost two years since Stevens finished The Greatest Story Ever Told. To David McCallum, now starring in the NBC-MGM television series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it seems an eternity.
"A whole new way of life has opened to me since I played Judas," he said. "My wife and I bought a home in the Hollywood hills and I completely redecorated it, our third son, Valentine, was born and I'm starring in a James Bond-type of thriller on TV with Robert Vaughn."
I first became aware of David in British films and it was the almost eccentric haircut, which he has always worn, that first caught my eye. But underneath the blond panache are a pair of brooding, intense blue eyes that possess all the magnetism of a modern-day Mesmer. The somber shadows in the hollows of his slim narrow face give him a touch of inscrutable mystery and you wonder after you've talked with him for awhile if he isn't really a changeling. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios think he resembles Rudolph Nuryev, but I think comparisons are odious. Anyway, I'd rather make my own.
The first day we met for lunch in the M.G.M. commissary his hair fell over his brow in classic disarray and my thought were that he was a pale, pensive Heathcliff. The next time we met he reminded me of the late James Dean. Actually David McCallum is unique.
He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the second son of David McCallum, now director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Dorothy McCallum, a cellist. They met in the orchestra pit while playing for silent films.
David was educated in London's Public schools and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London from 1949 to 1951. However, in 1945 he began his career as a child actor. He played a variety of roles and also was the property master with the famed Glyndebourne Opera Company. In 1951, he joined the British Army and served as Acting Captain in the Royal West Africa Frontier Force.
"It was known as the Gold Coast then, but it's Ghana now," David explained after we had ordered lunch. "I was on active duty eighteen months in the Ceremonial Guard to the Governor. I wore short khaki pants, a bush jacket, Sam Browne belt, green socks and brown boots. I also wore a bush hat, which is similar to the Australian hat, only it's turned up on the other side, with a green cockade stuck in it."
I commented that he must have looked nifty, which made him laugh.
"It was veddy veddy British you know," he said. "Remember I'm a Scot. Things were getting a bit nasty there at that time. It was before Ghana came into existence. I don't mind admitting I was damned nervous - it was laughable really because we were at their mercy - there I was running around giving orders right and left and my whole regiment was African."
After his discharge from the service in 1953, David joined a stock company playing the English provinces and, through 1956, he essayed different roles in as many as fifty-two plays a year. In 1957 he was placed under contract by Producer J. Arthur Rank. It was that same year he saw a picture in a newspaper of lovely Jill Ireland, a ballerina with the Monte Carlo Ballet who had become an actress. He fell in love with the girl in the picture - cut it out and carried it around in his wallet.
A few weeks later, she was signed to play opposite him in the Rank picture Robbery Under Arms, which was filmed on location in Australia. Seven days after they met he proposed.
"Everyone said I was mad - insane, that the marriage would never work out. Well, Jill accepted and we were married two weeks later," David said, adding cheerfully, "Our son Paul is six, our second son Jason is three and our third son Valentine is the baby, he's just nineteen-months-old."
Jill has appeared on several television shows. She starred opposite Vince Edwards in Ben Casey and she appeared in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. twice opposite David. The audience reaction was so great that she is making a third appearance in the same role. It seems as if she has become a regular on the show.
If you want to make David angry just tell him how much he and Jill resemble each other. They have the same coloring, the same facial contour and a remarkable similitude all around. It was astonishing, especially when Jill had her hair cut short and wore it combed forward like a British schoolboy.
David has a wicked sense of humor, with a touch of the macabre, and it is difficult to know when he is serious or putting you on. We had just begun lunch when he interrupted his biography to tell me confidentially that it is not safe to swim in fresh water lakes any more. I said I didn't know that. He continued:
"All the lakes and fresh water streams are filled with flesh eating Piranhas. It's true - don't argue - it's a fact. Small boys have been buying Piranhas as pets and bringing them home. When mother sees them she won't tolerate them and yells, 'Get rid of those darn fish, I won't have them in the house.' So, what does the little brat do but throw them in a nearby lake or stream. Well, anybody knows what happens when two Piranhas get into fresh water together - within no time at all you have a lakefull."
I gagged on the diet lunch I had ordered.
"Jill told me that the New York sewers are filled with alligators," he continued, glancing around the commissary to see if he was being overheard. "Now I can't guarantee it's true. Someone told Jill and she told me, but kids have been bringing home baby alligators and their mothers have been flushing them down the john. Can you imagine being a new man in the sewer department, and going down there for the first time and running head-on into a full grown alligator? You know a sewer is the best place in the world for an alligator to survive. It's absolute alligator heaven."
Don't be surprised if something like that crops up on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. David has already written several episodes.
Months after The Greatest Story Ever Told was completed, David appeared on Outer Limits as a rebellious young Welshman. Edward Mulhaire played a scientist who put the young man into a time machine and turned it forward so that he emerged as a man of the future, brilliant beyond any of our understanding. The tragedy was that even after he came out of the machine he kept evolving, his head grew monstrous. He went farther and farther into the future. The dialogue of this bewildered, violently unhappy creature was fascinating. He did not want to stop evolving. He wanted desperately for the scientist to project him out of the dismal world we understand.
"... far, far into the future beyond hatred or revenge. Into the dim future of mankind when the mind will cast off the hamperings of the flesh and become all thought - pure intelligence. It is the goal of evolution, the final destiny of man to become what he imagined in the beginning."
It was highly intellectualized imagery, touched with metaphysical overtones throughout the tele-play. When they re-ran the show, I recorded the speech.
I had the recorder with me and, as we sat together in the commissary I plugged in the earphones and handed them to him. He put them on with a quizzical look as he didn't know what he would hear. I couldn't hear the playback but when I turned it on his face lit up and he whispered, "It's me."
He listened to it twice and then turned it off.
"I wrote that dialogue. In fact, I rewrote most of my dialogue in that show. It is what I believe. I believe mankind is evolving towards a fantastic future. Someday, God knows how many thousands of years from now, mankind will look back at us and ask, 'What was that?'"
I asked if he had read any of the writings of the Jesuit scientist-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, because their theories were similar. He laughed at that.
"No, I read Bertrand Russell," he replied.
All of this led into his telling me, in great detail, about the filming of the biblical picture.
"I was brought to the United States to make the film. I flew over to test for the part in the middle of shooting The Great Escape in Germany. We spent nine months on location. Max Von Sydow, who plays the Master, was called 'Max Baby' and I was 'Judas Baby'."
The filming of The Greatest Story Ever Told was a career in itself for everyone concerned. The actors suffered from exposure and the severe climate. George Stevens and his associates searched the West by helicopter for a setting that would be not only impressive, but similar to the Holy Land in the time of Christ. He found it in the Glen Canyon Basin. It was relatively inaccessible and it had never been used as a motion picture location before.
The entire crew would have to work against time, since the government was constructing the Glen Canyon Dam and had doomed the site. They would back-up the Colorado River and the basin would be known as Lake Powell.
"We got up before the sun was out and were on the set at eight. The weather would be freezing, maybe fifteen or twenty degrees - that was the highest it ever got. We turned to ice in our thin robes and sandaled feet. We all caught colds and the flu," David said.
The Glen Canyon Basin, although monumental and grand, was purgatory for the actors. Many had signed with alacrity when offered the opportunity of working with George Stevens, but he proved a difficult taskmaster. I have interviewed many who appeared in the picture and since it is now all over they were glad to have had the chance to work with him. All agree he is a genius, but the spirit of Christ was not with them constantly. The director was plagued by ulcers, he was under pressure from many sources and always, always the flooding of the basin was hanging over their heads.
"There was an eight hundred-foot bridge strung across the Glen Canyon Basin," David related. Originally it was an Indian bridge, but the workmen on the dam had built this one out of chicken wire. When you walked across it you could see the Colorado River like a ribbon far below. It was eerie. We were fascinated with that bridge and it must have been pretty eerie for the workmen watching us, in our flowing robes, bearded and in sandals, and scared to death, I might add, on that silly chicken-wire bridge. We had cameras and took pictures while the bridge creaked and slowly swayed back and forth. It wasn't too wide either, although some darned fool got drunk and drove an Austin across it one night."
To add to their troubles, the actress who played Mary Magdalene became pregnant and they were forced to rush her scenes to completion. The Navajo Indians, being trained as Roman soldiers, balked and never did learn to march correctly ("We're guerrilla fighters," protested the young bucks,) and they were replaced by R.O.T.C. students who were hurriedly trucked in. The thermometer fell to zero and Christmas, 1962, snow fell and four inches of the white stuff settled over the massive Jerusalem set.
Every morning the actors joined the crew shoveling snow. January 3 they prepared to shoot the Palm Sunday Procession as a tremendous mob scene. Camels were equipped with hidden transistor radios so their drivers could receive directions and avoid traffic jams. Max Von Sydow was mounted on a donkey which had been discovered for stardom near Snake River, Idaho, and had been bleached white with Clorox.
Assistant directors screamed instructions to the imported Hollywood extras to remove their jewelry, shoes and sunglasses. ("Bare feet everybody, poke your camel over there, and all the lepers get your make-up checked.")
They struggled against the elements for days, freezing and shoveling snow, but it proved a futile effort. Several of the Apostles strained themselves, according to reports at the scene. The Navajos disappeared for a tribal council and a blizzard was approaching. It was then that they abandoned the Glen Canyon Basin.
"We were extremely low in spirits," said David.
David had arrived at an interesting conclusion in his characterization of Judas. Would not Judas have been the one who worried Christ the most? Unlike John, who was the most beloved, or Peter, who was the strength, Judas might have been closer to Jesus than any other. Might have been at his side, confided in Him and perhaps have been His closest friend. The tears that flowed in the Garden of Gethsemane during the bloody agony could also have been tears for Judas - the lamb who strayed so far the Shepherd was unable to bring him back to the security of the fold.
"How many times has a man been betrayed by someone he thought was his best friend?" David asked, "That is the way we played it."
George Stevens was inspired when he cast David McCallum in the role of the desolate Judas. Instead of the traditional villain, Judas is pictured as a youth with a melancholy air, wearing the look of an innocent saint.
"Those are the worst kind," David said. "You see, I was His best friend."
"It takes an expert actor with the face of a coffeehouse poet to play a way-out Judas. A Judas who is pathetically recognizable in many of today's ruthless materialists and the camouflaged commercialism that surrounds us every day. George Stevens was wise enough to recognize that a young Scot named David McCallum could indeed do justice to the role.