It could as easily have been Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, 1956) in the director’s chair. And Yul Brynner (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, 1962) as the stars.
The Barabbas tale had already been plundered before Swedish novelist Par Lagerkvist published his relatively short bestseller – only 144 pages – in 1950. An earlier novel of the same name by Emery Bekessy hit American bookstalls at the height of the mid-1940s religious cycle kicked off by Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945). DeMille – whose portfolio included Biblical epics The Ten Commandments (1923), King of Kings (1927) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) – was in competition with British producer Alexander Korda to buy the rights.
While that production never entered production, just to confuse matters a British film, Now Barabbas, based on a successful West End play and with no Biblical element, was released in 1949.
Swedish director Alf Sjoberg (Miss Julie, 1951), twice winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, turned the Lagerkvist book into a black-and-white film in 1953, the first Swedish picture to be dubbed into English.
A bigger-budgeted version, piggybacking on the success of Ben-Hur (1959), was the brainchild of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who had pacted with Hollywood studio Columbia on a four-picture slate worth $17 million, the bulk of which, $10 million, was to be spent on Barabbas “with a cast of thousands headed by some of the biggest names in motion pictures.”
“Hollywood on the Tiber” was producing movies at a record rate – topping 200 a year – and De Laurentiis, who had shot to fame with Bitter Rice (1949) starring future wife Silvana Mangano and Fellini’s La Strada (1954) was intent on gaining a foothold in America beyond the arthouse market. Producing King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) for Paramount had not done the trick and the Columbia slate was a last-ditch attempt to break into the Hollywood game.
Hollywood had originally invested in Europe to take advantage of tax breaks or to access monies frozen by countries after the Second World War, but by the 1960s the continent had become more attractive as a cheaper production alternative. While Britain had been a substantial recipient of Hollywood largesse, Italy was fast catching up as the chosen locale for pictures as varied as Cleopatra (1963), The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
Director Richard Fleischer’s career was at a curious impasse. The son of world-famous animator Max Flesicher, creator of the Popeye cartoons, Richard had won critical acclaim for low-budget thriller The Narrow Margin (1951), followed up with a pair of stupendous action hits, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and The Vikings (1958), both starring Kirk Douglas, and a daring examination of the world’s first “thrill killing” Compulsion (1959) with Orson Welles.
But he was at loggerheads with Twentieth Century Fox, to whom he was contractually tied, having turned down North to Alaska (1960) with John Wayne. As a result, he was relegated to lesser projects, Crack in the Mirror (1960), again with Orson, and The Big Gamble (1961), a picture with virtually no stars unless you count the questionable marquee value of Juliette Greco and Irishman Stephen Boyd trying to capitalize on his success in Ben-Hur (1959).
He had been on Dino De Laurentiis’ radar before, approached to helm War and Peace, circumstances dictating otherwise, and a $10 million project, a 70mm roadshow, presented an ideal opportunity to resuscitate his moribund career. As Fleischer put it, “Even if I had loved Darryl (F. Zanuck, the legendary Fox producer of The Big Gamble), I would gladly have jilted him for this assignment.”
Despite the promise of the budget, the reality was off-putting. The De Laurentiis studio was housed in a “dreary industrial slum” and consisted of a two-storey wooden building housing the offices and “three decaying stages.” However, there was little downbeat about De Laurentiis, “an impeccably tailored bundle of raw energy,” according to Fleischer, “the impact of meeting him for the first time is something akin to sticking your finger into an electric light socket.”
The Italian producer possessed a quality that was appreciated in Hollywood, especially among old-school mavens. He was a showman. He could drum up publicity at the drop of a hat. His first publicity coup was hiring French star Jeanne Moreau, at the time considered one of the few foreign actresses who need not rely on buxom figure, as the female lead. Her arrival in Rome for pre-production prerequisites such as costume and make-up testing induced a flurry of front pages. A mob of about 30 reporters almost prevented any testing. “Even though the tests were purely mechanical, she became the character in the script the moment the camera turned,” observed Fleischer.
Unfortunately, De Laurentiis had no intention of hiring her, not when he had wife Silvana Mangano at home. The press reaction to Moreau might have suggested he was backing the wrong horse, despite Mangano’s own marquee appeal, but he appeared delighted to have achieved a publicity coup, no matter that he had manipulated and duped a great actress and the director.
De Laurentiis pursued Yul Brynner for the titular role, a suggestion with which the director was in accord. This was the real thing, attempted recruitment not just a publicity gag. Until Charlton Heston muscled in with Ben-Hur, Brynner was the go-to actor for historical epics, The Ten Commandments (1956) making him an instant star, a position solidified with an Oscar for The King and I (1956) and commanding a $750,000 payday, on a par with john Wayne and William Holden.
Brynner was initially disinclined to play the role but after a day in discussion with Fleischer they shook hands on a deal only to have it torpedoed by De Laurentiis.
Scriptwriters Christopher Fry, famed English playwright but novice screenwriter, Nigel Balchin (The Man Who Never Was, 1956) and Diego Fabbri (The Corsican Brothers, 1961) were recruited with De Laurentiis reporting that they were “currently at work after having studied the material at length.” Later added to the roster was Italian Nobel prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo. Not trusting the producer to stick to the text, Lagerkvist assigned his son as overseer, a tactic that singularly failed to work.
Still lacking a male lead, De Laurentiis announced the movie would start shooting on January 7, 1961, with French pair Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1958) in the top female roles, neither of whom were ultimately involved.
Despite two Oscars as Best Supporting Actor, Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) had failed to reach the top echelons of Hollywood stardom, stuck in the rut of male lead to top-billed female or starring in lower-budgeted pictures. To rectify the situation, he had embarked on a project intended to provide a prestigious showcase for his acting skills. He had signed up to play opposite Laurence Olivier in the Broadway production of Jean Anouilh’s acclaimed play Becket.
He had to be prised away from the Broadway run by De Laurentiis who forked out $37,500 in compensation and guaranteed the actor time off halfway through the shoot to fulfil a commitment to Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In fact, Becket, while attracting good notices, was a Broadway flop, the production only going into the black as a result of the De Laurentiis pay-off.
The all-star cast never materialized. But there was prestige aplenty, three members of the cast Oscar winners, another trio nominees. Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) was at best a rising star, marquee value restricted to Italy. Jack Palance (Shane, 1953), was better known in Italy than the U.S., having spent the previous five years in Italy and now attempting a Hollywood comeback as a director. He was signed to play the notorious gladiator intent on killing Barabbas in combat. Ernest Borgnine (The Vikings) was still clinging on to vestiges of stardom after unexpectedly winning the Best Actor Oscar for Marty (1955). His wife Katy Jurado (High Noon, 1952) remained a starlet. Despite a bout of Oscar nominations in the supporting actor category Arthur Kennedy (Elmer Gantry) and never-nominated Harry Andrews (Solomon and Sheba, 1959) were no more than character actors.
It would have been impossible to make Barabbas on the tiny studio De Laurentiis owned so, encouraged by tax breaks, he invested in hundreds of acres of cheap land to build a new state-of-the art studio. But when Fleischer first saw it, it was nothing but a barren wasteland. Even so it was in these empty fields that production designer Mario Chiari would construct the ancient world.
Over several hours, simply by pointing his finger in vague directions, the pair came up with over 100 buildings, and the sets for Jerusalem and the Praetorium. The movie already had its arena – the 2,000-year-old structure in Verona – which would double for the Rome Colosseum. The complicated gladiatorial spectacle was the first sequence to be shot, with a world-record 9,115 costumed extras, arriving on a fleet on 75 buses from nearby towns. The only obstacle to rolling the cameras: Anthony Quinn’s specially designed gladiator sandals had been left behind in Rome. A temporary pair were mocked up so the first shot could be completed before lunch.
On the second day of shooting occurred a Hollywood fairy story. Looking for good characters to focus on in the crowd “one face truly stood out, that of an eighteen-year-old girl of stunning beauty.” The daughter of an officer at a U.S. military base in Vicenza, her name was Sharon Tate. Shortly afterwards, she moved in with Jack Palance, and not too long after that she was on the Hollywood glory trail prior to her premature death.
Another mishap threatened to spoil the scene where Quinn and Gassman, playing prisoners in the sulphur mine, were going to be chained together. The location was the top of Mount Etna in Sicily. On hand were 500 extras dressed as Roman slaves. It was a Sunday since that was the only day the roads would be clear enough to transport so many people and all the equipment up the two-hour drive from Catania up the twisty route.
The weather was terrible, the sky so black, the volcanic cinder ground a perfect match, with barely enough light to get an exposure. The only section of the scene unrehearsed was the riveting of the chains. And that required charcoal. But someone had forgotten the charcoal. A race down the mountain to bring back the charcoal took till the afternoon. But just as the charcoal arrived there was a break in the clouds and a spot of perfect light. It lasted just long enough for the shot to be taken.
The solar eclipse was no special effect. It was actually taking place on February 15, 1961, and Fleischer had cameras in place to record the phenomenon, the only genuinely ethereal scene in a movie that was more concerned with realism. The burning of Rome was also filmed “in camera,” the sets consumed in one take in one night.
While there were other occasional production errors, Fleischer found the Italian crew as professional as he required. And as accommodating. One day he was informed the crew had to go on strike for one hour. But after consultation with the director, the crew was happy to strike during the lunch break.
Even with a schedule rearranged to include Quinn’s time away filming Lawrence of Arabia (1962), shooting went smoothly with no overages or budget-blowing.
The production faced other threats. The 1953 version, already conveniently dubbed, was being reissued. There was a television production called Give Us, Barabbas, and a new play was launched off-Broadway by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, all of which could have stolen the limelight.
The movie followed an unusual distribution pattern. Launched in Italy at the tail end of 1961 to big box office it was another six months before it made a mark in London. In June 1962 it was the opening presentation for a new cinema, the Odeon Haymarket in London’s West End, a 600-seat underground emporium set up to take advantage of the demand for hard-ticket roadshow venues. The premises had not operated as a cinema since 1939 when it had been known for a short period as the Gaumont. It was only the second cinema built in London since the Second World War, the other being the Columbia in Shaftesbury Ave which had opened in 1959. In separate-performance advance-booking format, and tickets priced at $1.05-$2.80, Barabbas would remain at the Odeon for over six months.
It didn’t reach the United States – at the DeMille in New York – until October and even then was beaten to the North American punch by the 2,318-seat Odeon Carlton in Toronto, the largest cinema to enter the roadshow arena. And although available as a 70mm roadshow, in most locations it was more likely to be presented in 35mm minus the separate performances that were the hallmark of the prestigious hard-ticket presentation.
Columbia created some enterprising marketing concepts for the U.S. launch, including a touring exhibit by six well-known painters who had all used the film as the basis of artworks. A 41-foot high float including a 10-foot high revolving figure of Barabbas had been seen by 1.2 million people when paraded through Los Angeles. A special 190-page “making of” book was published in hardback. Six months after launch, the film was promoted as a “Special Lenten Presentation” in local cinemas with prices increased by 25 cents.
Although a huge success in native Italy and generally well-received at the international box office, Barabbas came up short in the U.S., rentals barely hitting $3 million, earning a lowly 35th place in the annual chart.
SOURCES: Richard Fleischer, Just Tell Me When To Cry, A Memoir (Carroll & Graf, 1993) p217-226; “Another Religious Picture May Be Barabbas Novel,” Variety, December 4, 1946, p4; “Now Barabbas Was A Robber,” Variety, June 1, 1949, p1; “First Swedish Picture Dubbed Into English,” Variety, June 23, 1954, p4; “Swedish Barabbas,” Variety, June 1, 1960, p4; “Lagerkvist, Nobel Winner, Assigns Son To Rome As Watchman on Barabbas,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; advert, Variety, January 4, 1961, p71; “Barabbas Budget over $10,000,000,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p3; “Dino De Laurentiis No 1 Indie Producer?,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p24; “Figure $17,500 for Off-Broadway Barabbas,” Variety, February 15, 1961, p71; advert, Variety, April 26, 1961, p71; “Becket Got 37½G On Quinn’s Exit,” Variety, May 3, 1961, p83; “Becket Folds As 40G Sleeper; Had Seemed Prestige-Only Flop,” Variety, May 31, 1961, p59; “Quinn Back To Work in Barabbas,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p17; “No Time To Fiddle in Rome,” Variety, November 15, 1961, p1; “To Write Barabbas Dialog,” Box Office, November 27, 1961, pW6; “Canada Coin,” Variety, March 21, 1962, p40; “Barabbas Exhibits Start Key City Tour,” Box Office, March 26, 1962, pE8; “Barabbas London Event: New York Date Oct 10,” Box Office, June 11, 1962, p14; “Barabbas Premiere Set For Oct 4 in Toronto,” Box Office, July 23, 1962, pE8; “Hard Cover Book to Ballyhoo Barabbas,” Box Office, July 30, 1962, p10; “Palance Back, Try Directing,” Variety, October 17, 1963, p3; “Big Barabbas Float,” Box Office, January 4, 1963, pA1; advert, Variety, January 23, 1963, p27; “Barabbas at Eight,” Box Office, February 18, 1963, pK2; “Lenten Angle for Barabbas Date,” Variety, March 13, 1963, p17; “Top Rental Features of 1963,” Variety, June 8, 1964, p37.