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Although the onscreen credits include a copyright statement, it was illegible in the viewed print, and the film was not registered for copyright. The opening credits include the following statement: "Made in Hollywood, USA. With deep appreciation to the other members of the cast, all of the highly trained extras, and skilled technicians." The following written title precedes the film: "Love and hate, the two greatest forces in the heart of man...today or yesterday. In Arabia...during the memorable years of the first century." The incidents in Lloyd C. Douglas' novel and the film are based on passages in the New Testament of the Bible and Christian religious traditions.
Press notes report that producer Rowland V. Lee, who had stopped making films thirteen years earlier, first gained interest in the book when Douglas, who had at that point just completed writing The Robe, told Lee of his plans to write The Big Fisherman. (For information about the screen adaptation of The Robe, see record below.) Lee, who, according to a October 12, 1958 New York Times article, had earlier considered producing a film on the life of Jesus Christ and discussed its financing with the Ford Foundation, read Douglas' book upon its publication in 1948.
On May 10, 1954, Hollywood Reporter reported that Bryan Foy had purchased a one-year option on the screen rights to the novel and planned for Douglas' daughter, Ginger Douglas Dawson, to write the screen adaptation. On May 9, 1955, Hollywood Reporter noted that Century Films, Inc. had purchased the rights, and on October 24, 1957, Daily Variety stated that Lee had negotiated the purchase of the rights from The Centurion Corp. and Douglas' estate, as Douglas had died in 1951. According to an February 11, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Walt Disney provided some of the picture's financing.
Hollywood Reporter reported on July 9, 1958 that Lee had hired Michael Curtiz as director, but on August 4, 1958, it was announced in Daily Variety that Curtiz had dropped out of the production due to scheduling conflicts. On August 21, 1958, Hollywood Reporter stated that Dennis Hopper had turned down a role in the film. On September 15, 1958, Hollywood Reporter reported that Lee was negotiating with MacDonald Carey for a starring role. Lee originally considered shooting the film abroad, but, as noted in a October 3, 1958 Daily Variety article, he decided to shoot it entirely in California, partly due to "skyrocketing" foreign production costs and partly due to a lack of appropriate overseas locales. That article stated that the filmmakers would shoot for six weeks at the Rowland V. Lee Ranch in the San Fernando Valley of CA, a frequent site of movie location shooting, and two weeks in La Quinta, as well as nine weeks at the Universal-International lot.
Studio press notes state that the film's final cost was $4 million and state that, because Lee believed that Jesus was "beyond the comprehension of man," the figure of Jesus would not be seen in the film; even the name of the actor providing his voice was kept a secret. However, an December 8, 1958 item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column stated that the voice belonged to Rev. Donald Curtis.
The Big Fisherman was the first picture to be filmed using Panavision 70mm, which allowed for superior depth of focus and definition. In addition, the filmmakers used a new six-channel, directional hi-fidelity sound system. Press notes describe the extreme care lavished on the production, from casting (3,746 actors appear in the film) to costumes to the authenticity of the set (6,000 props were used). 300,000 feet of film was shot and then reduced to 16,000 for the final version. Historical accuracy was overseen by technical advisor George M. Lamsa, who was a renowned Bible expert, as noted in a December 7, 1958 Los Angeles Examiner article.
Lee borrowed actor John Saxon from Universal for his role in this film. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the cast: Ned Weaver, Gordon Jones, Dee Carroll, Gloria S. Marshall, Nan Boardman, Paul Burns, Ken Christy, Joan Bradshaw, Maria Korda, Maria Stevens, Joseph Abdullah, David Bond, Austin Green, Charles Horvath, Bob Hoy, Alex Sharpe, Gordon Clark, Ken Terrill, Joe Hayworth, Minta Durfee, Paul Fierro, Paul Weber, Peter Damon, Lynne Allen, Richard Gaines, William Blakewell, Jason Lindsey, Art LaForest, Claire James, Dan White, Ann Dore, Mary McCarty, Sylvia Lewis, Karen Kandler, Richard Mitchell, Dud Leonard, Marshall Bradford and ex-prizefighters Mushy Callahan, Billy "Sailor" Vincent, Abe Bain, Bobby Michaels and Phil Bloom. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
Upon The Big Fisherman's release, critics had mixed reactions to the film. While many praised its scope and ambition, the Newsweek reviewer stated: "The acting is properly atrocious [for a parody], the settings magnificently tasteless, the dialogue a splendid refresher course in the use of the clich, and the production a study in minor technical errors." Several contemporary sources remarked on the film's departures from the novel, including the elimination of the historical figure of Salome. A 1959 Worship and Arts article stated that this omission was due to the "eroticism and licentiousness" commonly associated with Salome.
The Big Fisherman was nominated for the following 1960 Academy Awards: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), John DeCuir and Julia Heron; Best Cinematography (Color), Lee Garmes; and Best Costume Design (Color), Renie.