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Barabbas

by Glenn Erickson Oct 04, 2022

Richard Fleischer’s Biblical epic is a class act all the way, and one of producer Dino De Laurentiis’s greatest accomplishments. Anthony Quinn’s guilty, perplexed bandit survives and subsists but never understands the importance of the man crucified in his place; the view of early Christianity is respectful and free of pious clichés. It’s an excellent image of the ancient world, with gladiator scenes that are possibly the best ever. Fleisher does exceedingly well with the enormous sets and a well-chosen international cast: Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Vittorio Gassman, Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Silvana Mangano, Jack Palance.


Barabbas
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 132
1961 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 137 min. / Street Date June 29, 2022 / Available from [Imprint] / au 39.95
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Silvana Mangano, Arthur Kennedy, Katy Jurado, Harry Andrews, Vittorio Gassman, Norman Wooland, Valentina Cortese, Jack Palance, Ernest Borgnine, Arnoldo Foa’, Michael Gwynn, Laurence Payne, Douglas Fowley, Robert Hall, Joe Robinson, Friedrich von Ledebur, Gustavo De Nardo, Roger Browne, Curt Lowens, Natasha Lytess, Paul Muller, Massimo Righi, Sharon Tate (?), Ivan Triesault, Marco Tulli.
Cinematography: Aldo Tonti
Costume Design: Maria De Matteis
Art Director: Mario Chiari
Film Editor: Raymond Poulton
Original Music: Mario Nascimbene
Screenplay by Christopher Fry from the novel by Pär Lagerkvist
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Directed by
Richard Fleischer

Dino De Laurentiis made a number of costume pictures about the Bible or ancient Rome, but none as spectacular or prestigious as 1961’s Barabbas, a story so big that at least fifty speaking parts go uncredited. Major partner Columbia Pictures released the film most everywhere outside of Italy. Although barely Road Show length, it was filmed in a large format and released in various markets in 70mm.

With two Supporting Oscars on his belt, Anthony Quinn had been a front-rank star for several years. He chooses to underplay Barabbas, a rough, earthy guy trying to understand his own good fortune and the dangerous ‘new faith’ springing up around him. Given top billing after Quinn is De Laurentiis’s actress wife Silvana Mangano; the director’s first choice for her role may have been Jeanne Moreau.

The timing for Barabbas’ release wasn’t the best. The Biblical/Ancient World epics Ben-Hur, King of Kings and Spartacus had all enjoyed recent, lengthy Road Show runs. Barabbas lacks feel-good church themes or rousing battles; it’s instead the sober and unglamorous story of a wanderer trying to make sense of life. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, but an intimate philosophical meditation writ large.

 

As adapted for the screen by playwright Christopher Fry, the storyline follows the rough outline of Pär Lagerkvist’s award-winning 1950 novel. Bandit & cutthroat Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) is freed from a death sentence, chosen for pardon over fellow prisoner Jesus Christ. He spends a troubled lifetime trying to understand who Jesus was and the meaning of faith and love. His sweetheart Rachel (Silvana Mangano) is martyred for publicly promoting Christianity, so Barabbas goes back to being a pirate. When captured, he’s condemned as a slave, first in a mine and then on a farm. For years he lives chained to the fervent Christian Sahak (Vittorio Gassman). In a departure from the book, both are taken to Rome to train as gladiators, to fight in giant circuses of killing. Sahak sticks to the tenets of his faith, a crime that merits summary execution; Barabbas steels himself to fight the undefeated star gladiator Torvald (Jack Palance), a sadist looking for new opponent-victims.

Unlike Ben-Hur, Barabbas is an essentially secular story that removes the supernatural aura from the key events of early Christianity. There are no miracles, no heavenly music or booming voices from above. The doubting Barabbas seeks out Saint Peter (Harry Andrews), who offers no tangible proof to back up the new faith. He meets the zombie-like Lazarus (Michael Gwynn!), but again sees no reason to believe that the man has been resurrected from the dead — Judea abounds with fake prophets and delusionals. Barabbas learns by experience that followers of the faith are subject to brutal oppression. Choosing any moral path will adversely affect his chances of survival.

 

Barabbas’ amazing release from a death sentence builds into a rumor that he can’t be killed, an idea that he briefly encourages when he returns to banditry. By the time he’s become an expendable gladiator, he’s just trying to look out for himself, and do the least harm. He is confused by the covert faith of people he admires — what have they attained that he cannot?

Richard Fleischer consistently elevated the genre pictures and melodramas he was given to direct. He transcended RKO’s low-budget noirs with the sleeper The Narrow Margin. His biggest break came when Walt Disney recognized his talent and signed him on for the high-profile epic adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Fleischer didn’t promote himself as a genius, but instead concentrated on efficiency and clear storytelling. Like John Sturges, he got along well with producers and difficult stars. He even managed to make a success of the courtroom thriller Compulsion, circumventing the uncooperative, troublesome Orson Welles.

 

From an acting and production standpoint Barabbas is still a very impressive epic. The settings are huge and so are the crowds of costumed extras, all pre-CGI, pre-Green Screen. It’s all quite eye-opening. Mario Chiari had designed War and Peace for De Laurentiis, as well as Renoir’s The Golden Coach; the Judean buildings, the Roman court and the local countryside feel like real places in which people must cook and work. The prisons, dungeons and mines are forbiddingly dark but also seem functional. Most impressive is the enormous Colosseum- like arena, with its gigantic underground staging areas for animals and gladiators. The biggest ‘shows’ operate like a ten-ring circus, with numerous combats and war games going on at the same time. Over on one side, elephants perform. Teams of combatants fight atop an arch-like platform; the losers fall into a pit of lions. We even glimpse female gladiators.

Nothing in the giant arena is faked. Eight or nine thousand extras play the Roman spectators. The building itself is real — the production refurbished an ancient site in Verona.

 

Anthony Quinn keeps Barabbas interesting with a low-key performance that reminds us that people 2,000 years ago were mentally identical to us — with the same emotions and problems. The show is no celebrity parade. The readily-identifiable stars (Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy, Katy Jurado) remain submerged in their roles, and capable players like Valentina Cortese, Michael Gwynne and Friedrich Ledebur are given interesting, atypical characters. Ernest Borgnine is quiet and thoughtful as a slave who shares Sahak’s pacifism.

Most memorable — unforgettable, actually — is Jack Palance as the psychotic, ferocious celebrity gladiator Torvald. Nobody looks crazier than Palance, and careful direction keeps him from going too far over the top. The gladiator episode is of course the most dynamic. Torvald relishes the idea of killing Barabbas, a beginning gladiator in disfavor. Their combat is no duel of titans. Refusing to play the loser against a man on a chariot, Barabbas riles Torvald with his insolent attitude, and relies on plain old dirty tricks to even the odds.

The Bible says nothing about Barabbas after the crucifixion. Literature has been interpreting the character ever since, but I’ve read nothing that suggests that he lived happily ever after. After the violent and suspenseful gladiator combats the movie ends on a down beat, but without undue trauma or grief.  If Barabbas hasn’t the high profile of other Biblical epics it’s likely because it lacks a feel-good conclusion — healing the lepers in Ben-Hur, freedom for the son of Spartacus etc..

That’s too bad, because the film plays at a true adult level. It’s an intelligent, thinking-man’s epic. Richard Fleischer and screenwriter Christopher Fry came through with a quality entertainment.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of Barabbas comes from Columbia’s vault HD transfer of the 1961 film. It was shot in Technirama (slightly squeezed VistaVision) and for Road Show engagements was blown up to Super Technirama 70. Original 35mm prints were presented in Technicolor. When scanned for video, VistaVision and Technirama films often yield a sharper, more detailed appearance.

Barabbas hasn’t undergone a real restoration — this ‘secular’ dip into life at the time of the crucifixion never became an Easter favorite. The video image suggests that a colorist has done good work with a faded film element, pulling what color values can be rescued. It’s far too brown; we still perceive it as a faded movie. Enough contrast has been applied to keep the image from looking thin. The result isn’t as punchy as another Columbia-Sony Super Technirama 70 title also long due for a serious remaster, The Long Ships.

 

We can still appreciate the visual moods applied by frequent De Laurentiis cinematographer Aldo Tonti (Europa ’51, The Savage Innocents). One execution scene takes place in driving rain, and is very effective for it. Barabbas may not be pristine, but we can still appreciate Fleischer and Tonti’s vision of the ancient world.

Commentators Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman are in fine form here, and fill the full expanse of Barabbas with relevant talk. There’s plenty to discuss on a production this huge, put together by filmmakers with varied & interesting careers. Newman prefers this picture to Ben-Hur. He’s read the original book and likes the way Barabbas retains its intellectual qualities. Newman and Forshaw offer thoughtful remarks about the wider Biblical epic genre, all the way to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

 

Sheldon Hall’s video essay offers a wealth of good information. He asks us to consider Barabbas as an extension of Anthony Quinn’s brutish Zampano in La strada, a crude man who cannot conceive of a humane world. Yes, a real solar eclipse was filmed for the movie, but I feel confident that some shots with the eclipse are special effects.

Included is a featurette with director Richard Fleischer, who always comes off well in person. Robert Fischer’s 2017 piece uses a career interview by Eckhardt Schmidt, from 2003.

Back in 2001 Dino De Laurentiis was given a special Oscar. The editor charged with creating an inspiring clip montage had a serious problem finding shots from De Laurentiis’s quality productions that the audience would recognize — they couldn’t all be from Federico Fellini movies. Barabbas is an unappreciated great picture. The extras on this disc greatly increase our interest in it.

 

. . . Various sources agree that Sharon Tate was an extra on Barabbas. This film clip makes the claim.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Barabbas
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good – Minus
Sound: Good
Supplements:
Commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw
Interview piece Richard Fleischer: Looking Back
Video essay with author Sheldon Hall.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in slip case
Reviewed:
September 2, 2022
(6799bara)
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Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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