Friday, April 10, 2009


Where The Sign of the Cross begins, Barabbas ends. But as far as Dino de Laurentis and Columbia Pictures were concerned, Richard Fleischer's post-gospel epic "Begins Where the Other Big Ones Leave Off." In 1962, the "other big ones" would have been Ben-Hur and King of Kings. There was still money to be made for the big-budget Biblical spectaculars in the early 1960s, but the window was closing fast. This was a despised genre among the leading critics of the day, so much so that it's kind of transgressive today to look for virtues in films like these. So let's try, shall we?

Barabbas comes with a formidable literary pedigree. It's based on a novel by Par Lagerkvist, who got a Nobel Prize for his trouble shortly after the book appeared in 1950. I don't know the novel, except that it's short. In any event, credit for the adaptation goes to Christopher Fry, a British playwright who was highly regarded at the time, but whose work I've never seen or read. But you get the idea: prestige all around. Lagerkvist's Nobel Prize gets a screen credit, which may not have meant much to people who were going to see gladiators fight. Still, the high minds at work give this movie an interesting attitude.

Barabbas, of course, was the thief, brigand, or whatever whom the Jerusalem mob reportedly chose to receive the Passover amnesty by voice vote over alleged blasphemer Jesus of Nazareth. He's one of those gospel characters whom people have itched to flesh out for a long time. His apparent popularity begs a question: was he really just a criminal? Modern screenwriters have speculated that he must have been some kind of insurgent to have been so popular, though it's never been determined conclusively whether he belonged to the People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front. But we don't know how popular anyone needed to be to beat out the guy who went postal at the Temple concession stands and started flogging moneychangers. In King of Kings and other later movies you get the Robin Hood or guerrilla version of Barabbas. In his own movie, he's just a hood.

Fleischer opens in the middle of things, with Pontius Pilate (a smarmy Arthur Kennedy) telling the mob that they get to pick someone for the Passover amnesty. The favorites from early indications are Jesus and Barabbas, at the mention of whose name we go into the opening credits and a heavy dose of Mario Nascimbene's bludgeoningly apocalyptic score. Nascimbene sets the doomy mood for the whole show. I think he was the first of the Italian film composers to really crack the U.S. market (see The Vikings, for instance) and he was, to my knowledge, the first one before Ennio Morricone to shake up movie music in search of exotic sounds. Barabbas is some of his best work.

The latest returns from Jerusalem have Barabbas as the winner of the mob poll. So while Jesus gets some Passion-ate treatment from the Roman guards (and Fleischer needs only about a minute to make the entire point of Mel Gibson's movie), our hero is sent back into the outside world, a little confused by circumstances. A guard asks for a lock of his hair; "It ought to be lucky," he explains. Barabbas grunts and mutters, momentarily dazzled by the sun as it shines on his replacement victim. He gets a closer look at Jesus later, and reacts as if he had gazed upon the terrifying Faceless One of more reticent films. You know what I mean. In Ben-Hur you never see the guy's face, but you catch people looking at it and reacting as if her were trying really hard to hypnotize you or was just profoundly deformed. I think it was a good thing that they started actually showing Jesus's face on film because it taught children not to be frightened of the long-haired stranger in the white robes.

Surprisingly, given how many people wanted him free, Barabbas doesn't really get a hero's reception upon his liberation. Instead, he finds his way back to his old hangout, where his real friends are surprised to see him. They didn't go to ask for his life; did they even know they could? Anyway, they are happy to see him, and on hearing how he escaped they crown him King Barabbas. As he tells the story, "Give us Barabbas, they said. Give me some food." There were probably a few grunts and mutters in there that I've neglected to transcribe. Anthony Quinn's performance in the first reels of the film is a stumbling block. He seems to have post-dubbed many of these scenes and often sounds like he's mumbling through his coarse tunic. At moments it sounds less like a Richard Fleischer than a Max Fleischer film: The Gospel According to Bluto. But Quinn gets better as the film progresses and we get a better grip on what Barabbas is about.

It weighs on a man to know that he's alive because someone else was chosen to die in his place. That's why the sight of Jesus rattled him, and the sight of him passing by the clubhouse on his way to Golgotha rattles him again. All of a sudden he throws off his makeshift crown and curses his cronies for "treating me like a clown." It gets worse when his old girlfriend Rachel shows up. She got religion while he was in the can. Worse, she's a follower of Jesus, so you can imagine how thrilled she is to learn why Barabbas is home and Jesus is going to die. Ironically, it's Barabbas who goes out into the darkness (Fleishcer filmed parts of the crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, as the studio ballyhoo duly notes) to watch Jesus expire, while Rachel stays home and sulks. Barabbas may just be glad that he can see; at first, he'd thought he'd personally gone blind.

It's still weighing on him two mornings later. Rachel had been spewing some prophecy about how Jesus would come back from the dead that day, and Barabbas can't resist checking out the tomb for himself. He finds Rachel kneeling before an open tomb, claiming that she saw God open it with an arm of fire or some such thing. Yet she can't recall actually seeing Jesus walk out of the tomb. But if Jesus happened to come back from the dead, you might be able to find him where the disciples hang out. For some reason Rachel isn't there, but Barabbas hurries over, only to get a bunch of double talk from Peter the fisherman. Jesus told this guy that he was going to be a fisher of men. This may be the stupidest thing Barabbas has ever heard. If a man is a fish in a net, that means he's going to "struggle, gasp and die." True enough, the Rock says, but it's cool if you "die to the dark sea and begin to look in the light." And no, Jesus isn't available right now, and in fact he hasn't come calling yet, but they expect him at any moment, -- except for Thomas, whom Barabbas pegs as the only sensible guy in the room.

So, you don't think Jesus can come back from the dead? How'd you like to talk to someone he brought back from the dead? And so Barabbas is hustled into a back room so he can have a lovely chat with Lazarus.

Yikes! Are we sure Jesus didn't just feed this guy some Haitian zombie paste? If not, then I have to say the Nazarene didn't quite bring his friend all the way back. In any event, Barabbas can readily believe that Lazarus was dead, though the past tense may be a bit premature here. So, uh, what's death like? "What should it be?" the revenant answers, "How would you tell an unborn child what life is?" Still, Lazarus is impressed by his guest. Barabbas is the first person who ever thought of asking him what death was like? Everyone else asks what it felt like to be brought back.

On that note, we jump cut to Barabbas getting understandably wasted and mocking Peter's talk of people loving one another. The next moment his mood changes and he's protesting that "It's not my fault he died!" and telling people, "You're afraid to look at me because I'm alive!" We can assume he didn't see Jesus, and it doesn't look like Rachel has yet, either. But she's built up her own little following as a freelance prophet with her own vision of Christ's return:

Rachel: It will be as though the earth has become like a star, burned clean, everything evil swept away. We shall look up, and there shall be angels coming down from the sky, and they will put food in front of us, and maybe give us new clothes to wear, white like their own, or blue like the color of the sky. Pain and sorrow will sink into the ground and everything will be made new.

A drunken Barabbas goes out to heckle her, but when men from the Sanhedrin show up to arrest her for blasphemy, he's up and fighting to save her, albeit drunkenly and ineffectively. The authorities leave him sprawled in the street. Found guilty, Rachel is promptly put to death by stoning. She goes down hard and fast at the hands of hundreds of executioners, and Barabbas can't bring himself to go near her half-buried body afterwards.

For a little while it looks like his seeking is at an end. He finally catches up to his old criminal gang and takes charge again by killing two of his fair-weather friends. But when they ambush a caravan and it turns out to be Temple treasure, Barabbas forgets about gold and goes for revenge, chasing after two priests until the Romans ride him down. But Pilate has a surprise in store for his old acquaintance. When you win the Passover amnesty poll, you get lifetime immunity from capital punishment in Judea! But that doesn't stop the governor from sentencing Barabbas to life in the Sicilian sulfur mines. That doesn't faze our boy. He realizes now that Jesus "has taken my death!" and tells the Romans, "You stinking fish! I've got my life and you can't take it!"

He spends twenty years in the mines. This is a tough man. Smart, too. Seeing an old man gone blind from sulfur burns, he learns to work blindfolded. But does Barabbas really deserve the credit for his own survival? By now you should be asking this question. Does he make it because he's got brawn and cunning? Or is he a lucky guy, like the guard in Jerusalem thought? Or is it possible, as he begins to wonder himself, that he is being spared by a higher power for some still-unknown purpose? If Jesus is what his followers say he is, wouldn't he have meant for Barabbas to live, and if so, why? Lagerkvist, Fry and Fleischer want you to start thinking this way. They are setting a trap.

Toward the end of his time in the mines, Barabbas is teamed with Sahak, a Christian who was condemned to slavery for allowing slaves to escape a cargo ship. Like Rachel, Sahak, as a Christian, seems to resent Barabbas's existence. Christians everywhere despise his name, Sahak insinuates, but Barabbas calls him out for hypocrisy. He thought Christians were all about loving everybody. A chastened Sahak soon befriends him, which is a good thing, since Barabbas and he are the only survivors of a violent mine collapse. More luck, or...?

Patricians Rufio and Julia think it's luck. Moments after Julia touches Barabbas's head for some of that luck, news arrives that Rufio has been appointed to the Senate. That is a charmed life! Thinking Sahak equally lucky, the new Senator takes them both to Rome. Excellent! Now they get to be gladiators. As Julia says, "When a charmed life turns professional, we can expect great things."

Fictionally speaking, we're in the same moment as Sign of the Cross, but cinematically speaking thirty years have passed. The screen is bigger and more colorful, but the Code still prevails, even for de Laurentis, and the arena business of Barabbas is inevitably going to be tame in comparison with the DeMille monstrosity. Our first view of the arena looks more like a three-ring circus. Elephants are parading in a circle while teams of gladiators fight to the death on a bridge above a lake of fire, while an army of dwarves (one holdover from Sign) plays a strictly non-lethal comic relief role. On the other hand, while DeMille used the arena as a theatre of depravity, Fleischer will use it to turn his film into an action movie. In the arena we have a villain. He is Torvald, a man who has earned his freedom three times over for valor in victory, but prefers to remain a fighter and killer. More importantly, he is Jack Palance, casually mocking the relatively elderly Barabbas, humiliating him in practice sessions, and personally executing Sahak when he professes his faith and calls for a strike against killing.

Speaking of men who cannot die, Ernest Borgnine puts in a cameo-sized appearance as a Christian kitchen slave. Like most Christians in the movie, he ends up getting pissed off at Barabbas for failing to stand up for what Lucius assumed was his faith alongside Sahak. Not only do Christians often fall short in the love department in this picture, but they don't seem very forgiving, at least when it comes to Barabbas. It's an almost embarrassingly small part for Borgnine, and a signal that it was time for him to find work on television.

Barabbas deals with Torvald in a nicely-done combat scene that emphasizes the way a patient Quinn uses psychology on an increasingly agitated Palance and makes him get fatally sloppy. But now the film faces the Ben-Hur problem. Once you've had your big action scene, can you keep the rest of the movie from being anti-climactic? Christopher Fry and Richard Fleischer answer: yes!

Having earned his freedom from a magnanimous Nero, Barabbas takes Sahak's body to the catacombs of Rome for Christian disposal. This is where Lucius chews him out, and the rest of the Christians leave him lost in the dark tunnels. When he finally finds his way to the surface, the city's on fire. Hmmm. Didn't Sahak tell him once that God said He would burn away the old world? Didn't Rachel say that the earth would be burned clean? Aren't people in the streets saying that Christians set the fire? DING! "They're burning away the old world," our hero deduces, "The new kingdom is coming. God, you won't find me failing this time!" So he grabs a torch and does his little bit to help the fire along, and when the soldiers catch him he readily declares himself a Christian and tries to burn them for extra measure.

Let's review. Barabbas has led a charmed life. His being chosen to live instead of Jesus had to be part of God's plan, right? Since Jesus had to die, right? Have you been thinking this at home? I bet some of the more devout audiences of 1962 thought so, but look where this thinking leads you. If you buy into the suggestion that Barabbas's adventures have all been part of a higher plan, the film forces you to conclude that God meant Barabbas to frame the entire Christian religion for an act of terrorism that will ensure the martyrdom of multitudes of innocent people. On the other hand, you didn't have to look at events that way. Like The Sign of the Cross, Barabbas includes no miracles. We never see the risen Christ. The eclipse at the crucifixion could have been a purely natural phenomenon (Barabbas thinks it was a sandstorm). You could even rationalize Lazarus as someone who was -- is -- a very sick man. And we didn't see Jesus raise him from the dead, did we? I repeat: there are no miracles in Barabbas, unless your own faith presupposes them. But it looks like both book and film want to warn us against seeing every random event as part of a divine plan. That kind of thinking breeds complacency and distracts people from the everyday hard work of being a Christian. The point of the story seems to be that it's really hard to be a Christian, and even the first generation of believers found it not much less difficult than Barabbas does. And like The Sign of the Cross, you can leave the film believing that the hero never really does become a Christian, even if this time he ends up on a cross.

There are odd false notes at different points in the film. Its chronology seems to be off, or someone doesn't know his math. Barabbas gets his Passover amnesty no later than 33 AD, the latest popularly accepted date for Jesus's crucifixion. The film makes it look like only a few weeks pass from then to Rachel's death and Barabbas's next arrest. Add twenty years in the sulfur mine and we end up at 53 or maybe 54 AD. Again, the gladiatorial training is probably a matter of weeks or months. The fight with Torvold may have been only Barabbas's second public bout. Within a day or so of that is the Great Fire of Rome, which history dates at 64 AD. There probably was some telescoping of Lagerkvist's chronology, and most moviegoers probably wouldn't have noticed anything wrong, anyway. Then there's the scene in the catacombs, where all of a sudden, late in an extended sequence set in Rome, people start chanting actual Latin. What in Jupiter's name were they speaking before?

I'll write those off as quibbles. Overall, Barabbas is an entertaining spectacle with impressive art direction and appropriately bombastic music. Richard Fleischer was a consistently effective director, and while this is no FX extravaganza like Fantastic Voyage nor an experiment in style like The Boston Strangler, he gives de Laurentis his money's worth, especially in the arena scenes. Once Quinn gets his act together, he assembles an impressive portrait of a man too dumb to be cynical or rationalize things away, who has nonetheless seen too much to simply shrug things off anymore. Barabbas is supposed to be at a loss throughout the picture, and while Quinn himself initially seems to be at a loss as an actor, his quality comes through by the end. A showdown between him and Palance is pretty much guaranteed entertainment, and both deliver the goods in the big fight scene.

So if you're interested in seeing the New Testament era portrayed on film, but don't want piety forced down your throat, I can recommend Barabbas even more than Sign of the Cross. If it's twisted decadence you want, go with the DeMille. If you prefer color, a wide screen, better acting for the most part, and a film that doesn't have a psychotic outbreak near the end, then I give you Barabbas. And in this next bit, the pictures actually move.


hobbyfan said...

"The Gospel According to Bluto"? ROTFLMAO!!!! What surprises me more is that neither "Barabbas" nor "Sign of the Cross" has been remade for today's generation. I guess there are some things Hollywood won't return to.....

Unknown said...

Being the heathen that I am, I do love me a good Bible epic. Really, I'm pro all tales from that era and earlier. I've never seen this one though. The cast is great.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobby: I could see another go with Barabbas (not necessarily adapting Lagerkvist) but I think DeMille had the last word (with several exclamation points) on Sign.

Rev. My attitude toward Bible films is that people should find them no more threatening than Hercules movies. BTW, Barabbas was on TCM this afternoon in case I happened to inspire anyone.

hobbyfan said...

You see a remake of Barabbas? With whom? Russell Crowe? Gerard Butler? Colin Farrell? I have to disagree about "Sign of the Cross", though. It surprises me that Robert Halmi hasn't gotten his hands on that particular property yet. I could see that on NBC or USA in about a year or 3.

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

This is an extraordinary motion picture -- made all the more extraordinary by the expression on Jack Palance's face when he first emerges into center stage at the arena in his chariot. He is clearly one extremely happy motherfucker!

Samuel Wilson said...

Brothers: I like Palance's style, especially the way he drains a goblet between rounds. If one must hunt humans, that's the way to do it--only never throw a net at a man with a spear.

Anonymous said...

I have it on good authority that Barabbas was actually a member of the Popular People's Front of Judea.