Saturday, October 29, 2011


During the 1950s and 60s, there was a wave of epic Biblical movies (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, the Robe, etc.), and in 1961, Richard Fleisher turned the story of Barabbas (the man who was freed from execution instead of Jesus) into a film, a film that has long appealed to my raw instinctual nature, and philosophical curiosities, in other words I love it!

The movie begins with a shot of Barabbas (played by Anthony Quinn) inside a dark prison complaining about his eyes – throughout the story he’s put in places where it’s hard for him to see, serving as a kind of symbolism for his struggle to see both physical and spiritual light. 

Later on, filled with doubt and questions pertaining to the whole Jesus issue Barabbas drowns his sorrows with wine.  (Was he really the messiah?  Why was I released instead of him?)  He drinks himself into a drunken rage, yelling for people to look at him.  He grabs an old withered man, and says, “Look at me!”  That man turns out to be blind.  Again with the sight thing.

Barabbas eventually returns to his old gang of bandits, the gang that originally got him in trouble.  They decide to rob a caravan that just had to be led by Roman soldiers, and of course they get caught.  Barabbas is brought before the authorities…

Roman General: The shock and fear of an unreasoning fanaticism will pass, but the appetite to destroy, which alas the human being shares with the wild beast is always with us, and it has rigorously to be disciplined in the name of civilization and according to the law.
Barabbas: That’s what you say, but I tell you whichever side of the law we’re on, we’re the same man.  You and your kind and me and my kind.

You tell him Barabbas!  Stick it to the man!

The authorities sentence Barabbas to the sulfur mines on the island of Sicily.  Once again Barabbas finds himself in a dark place.  He spends twenty years in the mines, outliving everyone else imprisoned there.  And then a major earthquake destroys the mine, and only Barabbas and the man chained to him survive.  He comes out of the mine with a rag over his eyes, because they’re sensitive to the light. 

His friend, a devout Christian, badgers him about believing in Christ to which he replies, “Why can’t God make himself plain?”  That very question has bothered me for quite some time.  I mean, if God is real, then why be so cryptic and mysterious all the time?  I don’t know, I don’t think I ever will.

The warden’s superstitious wife considers Barabbas and the other guy to be lucky charms, and insists that she and her husband take them to Rome.  And here the movie shifts gears.  They arrive in Rome, and the warden gives Barabbas and the other guy over to be gladiators, he kind of just does that because it’s expected of him, they don’t really explain why.  Barabbas enters into gladiator training and those sequences remind me a lot of the training sequences in Shaolin Master Killer (1978) or any Rocky movie.
Anthony Quinn as Barabbas
And of course the strongest of the gladiators – Torvald, played by Jack Palance, picks on old man Barabbas, and of course they’re destined for a showdown in the Coliseum.  But before that can happen, Barabbas’s friend gets in trouble for preaching Jesus, and Torvald puts him to death.  So Barabbas has to face off against this mighty gladiator who picked on him, who killed his friend, and is virtually unbeatable on a chariot.  Oh the drama!  When they finally meet in battle, Barabbas uses his old man wits to outsmart Torvald, and ultimately kills him. 

The Emperor grants him freedom, but Barabbas can’t help being himself and when radicals start setting fire to Rome in the name of God, Barabbas joins the pyromaniacs thinking that the kingdom of God is really coming.  He participates in an effort to atone for his past denials of Christ.  The Romans catch him, and this time he claims to be a Christian, and he’s thrown in jail, in a dark place once more.  Peter the apostle is there and chastises him.

Peter: This isn’t how the new kingdom will be made.
Barabbas: Why can’t God make himself plain?  What’s become of all the fine hopes, the trumpets, the angels, all the promises?  Every time I’ve seen it, I end up in the same way with torments, and dead bodies, with no good come of it… All for nothing.
Peter: Do you think they persecute us to destroy nothing?  Or for that matter do you think what has battered on your soul for twenty years has been nothing?  It wasn’t for nothing that Christ died, mankind isn’t nothing.  In his eyes each individual man is the whole world.
Barabbas: I was the opposite of everything he taught, wasn’t I?  Why’d he let himself be   killed instead of me?
Peter: Because being farthest from him, you were nearest.
Barabbas: I’m no nearer than I was before.
Peter: Nor any farther away… I can tell you this, there has been a wrestling in your spirit back and forth in your life, which in itself is knowledge of God, by the conflict you have known him.  I can tell you as well that so it will be with the coming of the kingdom, a wrestling back and forth a belaboring of the world’s spirit like a woman in child birth.

Afterward, the Romans crucify Barabbas, thus linking the end with the beginning…  This movie has it all for me – philosophical struggle, gladiator training sequences, intriguing dialogue, and one hell of a performance by Anthony Quinn.


  1. I first watched Barrabas in the 60's on the big screen.Seen it a few times on tv since.
    That wide eyed crazed look on Walter Jack Palance's face while on the chariot has been imprinted on my memory since the first viewing.
    My favourite Quinn movie though has always been 'The Guns of Navarone'

  2. Awesome, wish i could've watched it on the big screen. Haven't seen Guns of Navarone, but now it's on my list of to watch movies.

  3. I'd totally forgotten this movie! And you're right, it was a great one. Of course, anything with Anthony Quinn had to be great. He had such a powerful presence on the screen.