It being Easter, I thought I’d watch Barabbas (1961) again, the best (to my mind) of the Hollywood/Hollywood on Tiber epics for which there was such a vogue at that time. It was produced by Dino de Laurentiis, with a gargantuan appetite for making epic films – an auteur of a kind – and directed by Hollywood’s Richard Fleischer, a highly accomplished metteur en scene, who knew how to make action movies, which is largely a lost art in our digital age. It’s wooden in places but some of it comes off magnificently, including one of the very best crucifixion scenes on film, and a terrific gladiatorial contest.
Here is what I wrote about the film in NEW FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD:
In fact it is the characters at the edge of the gospel story, like Judas, who can offer a dramatically fruitful way into it. At almost the same time as King of Kings was being made, the figure of Barabbas was being given even greater prominence in the filming of the distinguished novel ‘Barabbas’ by the Swedish writer, Pär Lagerkvist, published in 1950. Lagerkvist called himself a ‘believer without faith – a religious atheist’ (a term we shall encounter again in this book) who shrewdly chose the figure of Barabbas to convey an intriguing form of religious doubt in its most literal form: why should Jesus have died for me, in my place?
The story begins with the release of Barabbas, thief and murderer, in place of Jesus, and with his witnessing of the crucifixion. When he learns of Jesus’ resurrection, he goes to find the disciples, Peter among them, to accuse them of stealing the body. Soon after, he is again arrested and sent to serve a sentence of hard labour in a sulphur mine. When the mine caves in, he manages to escape death once again and ends up in a gladiator school. His evasion of death at the hands of a sadistic gladiator leads the emperor Nero to grant him his freedom, but after his release he is accused of taking part in the burning of Rome, meets Peter again in prison, and finally accepting that Jesus was the Son of God, dies on a cross, thus exorcising the guilt that had been pursuing him.
While the film is wooden as epic, particularly risible in its depiction of low-life Jerusalem, it has several virtues: it treats the scourging of Jesus in striking fashion, both musically and visually (the scene is based on Christ After The Flagellation by Velázquez in the National Gallery in London); the crucifixion was filmed during an actual eclipse of the sun, to brilliant effect, setting in motion a properly Biblical theme running through the film of light and dark; there is a thrilling gladiatorial combat between Barabbas and his tormenting opponent who is played to the hilt by Jack Palance, master of the sinister, soundless laugh. Above all, the film is one of ideas: Barabbas is freed from death four times into the presence of brutishness, of suffering and of doubt, in short into an absence of freedom. The film’s true end is Barabbas lost in the catacombs of Rome shouting ‘Where am I? Show me the way!’ The burning of Rome, Peter’s homily to Barabbas and then his crucifixion feel like an afterthought.