Brutally ironic ending adds a final twist to this religious epic that sheds a murky rather than heavenly light on the early days of Christianity. Barabbas (Anthony Quinn), in case you are unaware, is the criminal who, in a public vote, is spared crucifixion instead of Jesus Christ. Intent on returning to his lusty life, instead he finds himself drawn to the teachings of the Son of God despite his feverish attempts to deny it. Death might have been preferable to two decades spent imprisoned in the sulphur mines followed by a stint as gladiator only, finally refusing to deny his conversion, he ends up on a cross.
The fate of Barabbas in the Bible is undetermined, only meriting a few lines, but in the imagination of Swedish novelist Par Laverkvist he lived quite an extraordinary life, a criminal vagabond coming to believe in what he originally despised. The religious element is almost an excuse to investigate life at the edge of a pauper’s existence, a world in which faith is possibly the only way to get through the day. It’s an episodic tale with Barabbas as a Job-like peasant on whom constant indignity and humiliation is heaped.
A witness at times to the most exalted elements of Christianity – the eclipse surrounding the crucifixion, the stone rolled away from the tomb – he also sees lover Rachel (Silvana Mangano), a Christian convert, stoned to death. It’s a miracle he survives imprisonment in the mines and that when, thanks to an earthquake, he escapes it’s almost bitter irony that he ends up in gladiator school, facing the demonically sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance). Even when pardoned, he is again arrested for, believing the end of the world is nigh as described in the Christian teachings, helping burn Rome to the ground. Arrest this time sends him back to where he started, heading for crucifixion, though this time willingly.
Anthony Quinn (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) is excellent as the dumb, mostly mystified peasant, only occasionally rising to the occasion, mostly defeated, or captured, and failing to defend those he should protect. Not entirely cowardly, witness his battle in the arena, but self-serving, and in a sense cursed by events outside his control.
Others are only briefly in the spotlight, Silvana Mangano (Five Branded Women, 1960) good as the converted Christian accepting her fate, ditto Vittorio Gassman (Ghosts of Rome, 1961) as an enemy prisoner in the mines, and Jack Palance (Once a Thief, 1965) over-the-top as the kingpin gladiator. In cameo roles – not exactly the promised all-star cast – you can find Ernest Borgnine (Chuka, 1967), Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961), Katy Jurado (A Covenant with Death, 1967), Valentina Cortese (The Visit, 1964) and Harry Andrews (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968).
Director Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961) does a brilliant job of keeping reverence at bay, turning the potential awe of the eclipse into a moment of personal terror, ensuring that current persecution rather than potential eternal life remains foremost, focusing on the human not the ethereal. He presents Barabbas as constantly mystified at his escape, guilt-ridden that he has done nothing with his life, thwarted in virtually every attempt at redemption.
The big scenes are well-handled, the sulphur mines a pit of Hell, the arena far more realistic than Spartacus (1960), the burning of Rome that initially represents freedom turning into a trap. Filmed in Technirama 70mm, Fleischer makes the most of the widescreen and the historical detail.
In some respects this makes more sense if viewed alongside the director’s crime triptych of Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1970) which concentrate on outsiders coming to national attention through illicit activity.
Far from the usual stodgy religious offerings of the period, more in keeping with a Pasolini-like vision, with a keener eye on history than creed, it’s been rather overlooked and deserves reappraisal.
Christopher Fry (The Bible…in the Beginning, 1966) was credited with the screenplay from the book by the Nobel prize-winning novelist Par Laverkvist.