Did John Wayne Really Add a Little “Awe” to His Cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: John Wayne once took a George Stevens cue in a memorably pun-derful direction.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was an epic tale of the story of Jesus Christ, released in 1965, with a young Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ…

The movie was directed by veteran Hollywood film director and producer George Stevens…

Part of Stevens’ approach to the film was to get as many famous actors into the film as possible, even if they were only appearing in cameos (this is a similar approach that Michael Anderson took with the Best Picture Winner of 1956, Around the World in 80 Days).

One such cameo appearance was by Hollywood icon John Wayne…

Wayne appears at the end of the film as a Roman Centurion tasked with guarding Jesus Christ on the cross. As Jesus expires from the mortal plane, Wayne’s character exclaims, “Truly this was the son of God.”

Well, as the story goes (here is one of a gazillion different versions of this story, all of which are essentially the same)…

[T]hat at the rehearsal for “The Greatest Story Ever Told’, The Duke, playing the Roman soldier who speared Jesus on the cross, said rather flatly: “Truly he was the son of God”. the director said: “Not like that, say it with awe!”

Obligingly Wayne repeated his line: “Aw, truly he was the son of God.”

It’s a great story, and definitely one that I could completely see happening since, according to the story, it is just a one-off joke, presumably made to cut the tension during the filming of the elaborate epic film.

But DID it happen?

Both John Wayne and George Stevens have independently denied the story, and in both of their cases, they noted that the story IS funny, but that it did not happen (so it’s not like a case of people being so embarrassed that of COURSE they’d deny it). The film also featured a young Roddy McDowell as the apostle Matthew. Years later, McDowell claimed that he was there when Wayne shot his one line, and that the “aw, truly” scene never actually took place. And I’ve never heard or read of an eyewitness claim OTHERwise.

So when the two parties in question both say it never happened, as did a third party witness, I’m willing to believe them, and classify this story as a funny story, but not a true funny story.

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

One Response to “Did John Wayne Really Add a Little “Awe” to His Cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told?”

  1. There’s a similar story about The Mikado. When Nanki-Poo cries “Rapture!” during one scene, Gilbert thought he was overdoing it and yelled out “Modified rapture!” Nanki-Poo then read the line as “Modified rapture!” Gilbert liked it enough he added the wording to the scene.

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