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How incredibly appropriate if not downright eerie that the sun should turn
on a full eclipse during the filming of BARABBAS that was captured by the
Technirama 70 cameras for the crucifixion scene.
Arguably the "forgotten epic" when talk of the 60's blockbusters brings inevitably mention of BEN HUR, KING OF KINGS, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, SPARTACUS, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, GENGHIS KHAN, CLEOPATRA, SODOM AND GOMORRAH, etc. Many see in this film an individual depth and emotion, lacking in other such works. Quinn in fact brings (despite the poetic license taken with historical confirmation) to Barabbas, a portrayal of a man tortured by his past, his reason to still be alive and his destiny. From the claustrophobic escape from the sulphur mines to his gladiatorial deeds in the arena, Barrabas is a driven man of open-ended religious conviction. He embraces Christianity but does he understand it? He saw Christ die in his place and lived his life to find out why!
Palance whose face has been his career, was the ONLY choice as Torvald the head gladiator who lives only to kill! It was one of his best ever roles.
I saw this film in London at its premiere in 1962. It received luke-warm critical reception at the time but had a successful run in the West End of some six months or so. Has had far less screening on television and cable than other epics of its ilk which is a pity as it had a lot to offer the discriminating viewer.
I've often wondered at times from a literary as well as religious point
of view what happens to some of the peripheral cast of characters in
the Scripture. I'm sure that's a question that more than a few have
pondered on, whether they are believers or not.
Case in point is Barabbas. All we know about him is that he was the guy that the mob shouted for when offered a choice between pardoning him or Jesus of Nazareth. Some tradition has him as a common bandit, others have him as a rebel against Rome.
As played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas is a troubled soul. As the message of Jesus of Nazareth spreads, Barabbas is unsure of what his role is. He's realized he's been a participant in something historic to say the least. But people treat him differently. The early Christians view him with some resentment. To Pontius Pilate, played by Arthur Kennedy, Barabbas is still a no good bandit. Of course Barabbas gets himself arrested again and begins his odyssey.
The movie is an adaption of a novel by Swedish Pulitzer Prize Winning writer Par Lagerkvist and a Swedish film adaption had already been filmed prior to this international cast epic. Might be interesting to view it side by side with this one. I'm sure the Swedish film didn't have half the budget this one did.
The movie fuzzes certain issues as films of this type generally do. Pacifism is a tenet of the early Christian faith of those hiding in the catacombs. Turning the other cheek is a big thing. But Anthony Quinn isn't a Christian so his modus operandi isn't exactly turning the other cheek.
Some top flight professionals are in this cast. The aforementioned Arthur Kennedy as Pilate, Silvana Mangano as Barabbas's girl friend who becomes an early convert, Vittorio Gassman as Sahek who is Barabbas's martyred Christian friend and most of all Jack Palance in a scene stealing performance as the top gladiator in Rome. You should watch this film for him alone.
The message the film tries to convey is that Barabbas in and of himself wasn't important. Jesus's life and death were pre-ordained and it could have been Barabbas or any of hundreds of others who could have been where he was.
But the way certain folks enter into biblical stories does give writers a whole lot of license to construct wholly fictional lives around them. This is as good a film as any for that purpose.
Having been an Anthony Quinn fan for many years, I came across this video
recently and rented it. I wasn't sure what to expect, but was pleasantly
surprised to see quite a different performance from Quinn. While he had
moments of gruffness, for the most part he tackled this role as the
confused, tormented Barrabas with a great deal of inner work. The most
impressive moments where when his face reflected the conflicts of belief,
choice, and commitment. As one of the most famous individuals in history it
was an imaginative characterization of Barrabas, much like the other
enigmatic individual in Christianity -Judas- as characterized by Ian
McShane in Jesus of Nazareth (1977).
Wonderful music score, and cinematography. Notice especially the care given to the staging of the scourging of Jesus in the beginning of the film -silence except for Heaven's angels screaming in anguish. Breathtaking.
This is a first-class, reverent film that doesn't fall into
Hallmark-card empty kitsch on one hand, or Mel Gibson's
sado-masochistic porn on the other. This movie does not insult the
subject-matter or the audience, and that's rarer than we might like.
Special credit goes to Aldo Tonti's Rembrandt lighting, consistently a joy. Mario Nascimbene's musical score rises above his usual brutality to real eloquence. The acting is without weakness, Quinn, Borgnine, Jurado and Andrews putting aside their sometimes numbing predictability for this special occasion. Richard Fleischer's direction is punchy without being vulgar, serious but not ponderous.
There are some awful religious films out there. This is thankfully not one of them. It's definitely worth the viewing for Christians and non-Christians alike.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Through Barabbas, complex themes of faith, spirituality, violence,
peace, morality, human dignity and cruelty were examined in the guise
of a Biblical epic directed by a competent filmmaker of action
pictures... His film vividly captured the panoply of Rome, the
stultifying sulfur mines, the savagery of the Roman arena, the
gladiatorial sadism, Nero's fire in Rome, and the persecution of
Despite a lamentable weak script, the acting was often comfortable, and the action very entertaining
Anthony Quinn made his best as the confused man of violence, the common thief and the assassin...
Vittorio Gassman was good enough as the brave gladiator who stood on his faith...
Silvana Mangano was beautiful as Barabbas' former lover who knew that Jesus was, for her, the true substitute...
Jack Palance was, as always, great as the cruel and sadistic gladiator
Richard Fleischer was a good jobbing director but there were occasions
when he seemed inspired. "The Vikings" is one of the great genre movies
and "The Boston Strangler" is one of the best police procedural films
ever made. This is very much in the same class and has much to commend
it. It's biggest drawback is that the early scenes never quite shake
off the enforced piety that engulfed Hollywood movies that centered on
Christ. Is it any wonder that Monty Python lampooned such movies in
their "Life of Brian"? On the other hand, coming as it does from a
novel by Nobel prize-winning author Par Lagerkvist and scripted as it
is by Christopher Fry, the film is more intellectually challenging than
we have any right to expect, (for example Barabbas has a discussion
with Lazarus on what it was like to have died and then to be raised
from the dead), while at the same time not skimping on the spectacle,
(the gladiatorial scenes are superb).
It begins with the freeing of Barabbas in the place of Jesus, then follows him on his own journey of redemption as he realizes that it was through Christ's death that he came to live. It's a theme, of course, as old as the Bible itself and as religious movies go it's a bit simplistic but it does work on a primitive, intellectually jarring level and it doesn't thrust it's religiosity down our throats. Barabbas' journey of discovery is long, slow and painfully questioning and is consequently quite moving.
No one in the large, international cast gets to rise above being a Biblical or gladiatorial cliché with the exception of Anthony Quinn in the title role. He is excellent and had yet to give way to the bombast of Zorba the Greek. Still, neither Quinn's performance nor the film have ever been given their due. Perhaps a movie about the man who lived so that Christ might die proved unpalatable. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth rediscovering.
BARABBAS rocks. We saw it at the drive-in in the early 60's and the whole
family loved it, all nine of us. I'm not always enamored with Anthony Quinn.
Sometimes he seems conceited. But as Barabbas he is brilliantly humble, yet
powerful. This is by far, his best movie ever. His faces say a thousand
words a thousand times. It's as though he was transformed and really became
the character, not played it. He is stoic and disturbed, tortured by the
crisis within his soul.
Barabbas is the man the crowd chose over Christ and this is a
fictionalized account of his life after Christ was crucified. Jack Palance
gives the second greatest performance of his life as the man who trains, and
sometimes kills, gladiators. That evil laugh. That face. What corner of hell
gave birth to this man? It's almost as good as his Jack Wilson gunfighter
role in Shane. Palance is so mean in Barabbas that all sorts of pacifists
would gladly kill him if they had the chance.
There are a couple of slow spots but the sets are fantastic and the story
How did Jack Palance sleep at night?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The story of the man whose place Jesus took on the cross is told here with
power and imagination. Quinn gives an excellent performance in the role of a
man who becomes blinded by the light of Jesus, figuratively descends into
the tomblike hell of a salt mine, is resurrected to become a gladiator, and
finally dies, knowing what Jesus had done for him many years before. The
interweaving of parallels between Barabbas' life and that of Jesus are
Jack Palance is deliciously evil as the villainous sadist in the arena. Mario Nasimbene's score is haunting, using experimental musical approaches to describe the pain of Barabbas in conflict with the glory of Rome and the ultimate victory of the spirit over evil and death.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'll leave the plot summary to the others who've done it well, so far.
But a plot summary doesn't begin to show how this one differs from the
other Biblical epics of it's time. The difference lies in a script that
wonderfully reflects the double-edged attitudes of Par Lagerkvist's
powerfully brilliant short philosophical novel. Unimaginitive believers
can see what the plot summaries indicate. But underneath it all, the
adapter-screenwriter Christopher Fry, and the director, Richard
Fleischer, manage to successfully walk an ironic tightrope , in which
the "too-good" Christians and the ordinary sinful Barabbas are
constantly contrasted during conversations long and short. Barabbas
thinks Christianity all bosh, the world is not what Christians believe
it is, but then why can't he die or be killed? As the King of Siam
would say, the fact does make a puzzlement.
I must apologize for the following spoiler, but how anybody who is thinking at all can blithely assume that Barabbas is beyond doubt "saved" into the fold of the blessed is way beyond me. Even as a kid in the days of BARABBAS's first release I knew that something unusual was going on as soon as I heard Barabbas" final words from the cross: "Darkness...I give myself up to your keeping... It is Barabbas." I haven't left anything out; the dots just indicate pauses in Quinn's delivery. Prior to this line Barabbas has complained that he can't tell whether it is night or day and asks what time it is and remembers that it was at the sixth hour that....
I love this film as wonderful dramatic exploration of the modern dilemma of faith. I expect I'm biased in loving it because it helped develop my abiding interest in philosophy; But I don't think that that bias has pushed me into a mistake when I call BARABBAS one of the most thoughtful and intelligent movies of its time, in spite of its being a sword and sandal epic.
Whatever happened to that guy who was let off the hook when Jesus was crucified? Here is a fictional account of his life after he was released in Jesus' place. Quinn plays the title character, a thief and rabble-rouser who is set to be crucified when a technicality allows one prisoner to be released due to a holy day. It is brought up in order to free Jesus, but the crowd instead calls for Barabbas' freedom and stay of execution. Quinn spots Jesus briefly through piercing sunlight, then finds himself touching the blood that he's left on a post. He shakes it off and returns home only to find that his lover (Mangano) has fallen under Jesus' spell and won't play anymore. Soon, he has returned to his old ways and when he's arrested, he discovers he can't be killed due to the same technicality that freed him the first time! So he's shipped off to a harrowing sulfur mine where he is chained to man after man, each of them dying in turn until he's paired with an ideological Christian (Gassman.) Circumstances then lead this pair to the Roman Coliseum where they are trained in the art of gladiatorial combat and must face down the deranged and powerful Palance. As the many years go by, Quinn finds himself tempted to believe in Jesus, but always wavering until finally he must make a choice. The film is epic in story and scope with several memorable sequences including a solar eclipse, a stoning execution, a cataclysmic cave-in and a spectacular visit to the Coliseum. The film must be seen in its wide-screen format in order to appreciate the magnitude of its composition. Quinn gives an understated performance with surprisingly little dialogue. His grunting, mumbling approach near the beginning fortunately gives way to a more comprehensible, accessible performance later. The film has a parade of famous actors each of whom is billed in order of appearance except for Mangano (who unfairly gets special treatment due to her marriage to the producer!) It's really Quinn's show, but several others get a chance to shine. Gassman is given a heroic and dignified role, Andrews adds weight to the film with his surehanded presence and Palance is quite notable as the unbeatable gladiator. With his ear-to-ear, snarling grin and his stony stares at his opponents, he presents a formidable foe in the arena. The production is quite eye-filling and visually arresting, but also relentlessly downbeat. Jurado, as Quinn's second favorite bed-mate, adds a little earthy humor to the proceedings, but is dispatched without much ado. There is a tad of unintentional humor along the way thanks to some of the conventions of film-making at the time, but mostly from the entire sequence featuring Lazarus, recently risen from the dead and not looking too great for it! The hysterically wan and creepy looking performer does little to encourage anyone's desire to be resurrected! It's an oddly under-appreciated film, though, which can stand proudly aside its cousins such as "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus".
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