Barabbas (1961): Richard Fleischer’s Religious Epic, Starring Anthony Quinn and International Cast, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Kathy Jurado

The versatile filmmaker Richard Fleischer directed Barabbas, a religious epic about the life of the titular character, based on various literary sources, including the Gospel of Mark.

Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)


Barabbas film poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film stars Anthony Quinn in a role originally planned for Yul Brynner, who had excelled in two previous Biblical films: as Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments and as Solomon in Solomon and Sheba.

The large ensemble includes an impressive international cast: Italian Silvana Mangano and Vittorio Gassman, Mexican Katy Jurado, American Arthur Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Palance, and British Harry Andrews.

Conceived as a grand Roman epic, the movie was based on Nobel Prize-winning Pär Lagerkvist’s 1950 novel of the same title.

Director Richard Fleischer shot the movie, which was produced by Dino De Laurentiis (Mangano’s husband), in Verona and Rome.

It included spectacular scenes, such as a battle of gladiators in a Cinecittà film studio mock-up of the arena, and a crucifixion shot during an actual solar eclipse.

Pontius Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas, in keeping with the Passover custom. The crowd chooses Barabbas, and Jesus is condemned to crucifixion.

Upon return, Barabbas asks for his lover, and is told that she has become a follower of Christ. Barabbas is shaken to witness the crucifixion of Jesus, during which the sky turns black. He then watches Christ’s body sealed in the tomb.

On the third morning, Barabbas finds the tomb open, and doesn’t believe when Rachel tells him that Christ has risen.  He visits the apostles, who do not know where He is, but also believe He is risen.

Preaching in Jerusalem about Christ, she is stoned to death. Barabbas returns to his criminal ways and robs a caravan with priests. He throws stones at one of them, and is captured by Roman soldiers. The law forbids Pilate from executing a pardoned man, so he sentences Barabbas to lifelong slavery in the mines of Sicily.

Barabbas survives this tough existence for the next 20 years. He is chained to Sahak, a sailor sent to the mines for allowing slaves to escape. Sahak, who is Christian, hates Barabbas for being pardoned instead of “the Master,” but eventually becomes friends.

As the guards are about to kill Shahak, who’s now too weak to work, the mine is destroyed in earthquake, and he and Barabbas are the only survivors.

The local prefect is due to leave for Rome to be appointed to the Senate, and his wife Julia insists that Barabbas and Sahak accompany him.

In Rome, the men are trained to become gladiators by Torvald. After a mass event, Sahak shares his faith with other gladiators, and is condemned to death for treason.  A firing squad deliberately miss with their spears, and Torvald executes Sahak.

Torvald and Barabbas battle in the arena, and the latter wins; Emperor Nero is impressed and sets him free. Barabbas takes Sahak’s corpse to the Catacombs, where the Christians worship, and  they grant him proper burial.

Barabbas gets lost in the Catacombs, and when he reemerges, Rome is on fire. Believing that the end of the world has come, Barabbas sets fire to more buildings.  Confronted by Roman soldiers, he tells them he is a follower of Christ, causing his imprisonment alongside the apostle Peter. Peter admonishes Barabbas for committing arson, claiming that Christians would not do such a thing.

Afterwards, the Christians are executed by mass crucifixion.

For all of his life, Barabbas was reputed to be a man who could not die. However, having finally gained his faith in Christ, he dies.

The music score by Mario Nascimbene, conducted by Franco Ferrara, the noted conductor and lecturer at several famous international academies, was noted for its stark experimental component – the composer referred to his work, which introduced electronic sounds by the manipulation of tape speeds, as “new sounds.”

The depiction of the crucifixion was shot on February 15, 1961 during an actual total eclipse of the sun.

Critical Status:

Selected as one of Top Foreign Films of the Year by the National Board of Review (NBR).


The film had been released in Italy almost one year (Christmas of 1961) before it was shown in the U.S., on October 10, 1962.

Anthony Quinn as Barabbas
Arthur Kennedy as Pontius Pilate
Jack Palance as Torvald
Silvana Mangano as Rachel
Harry Andrews as Peter
Ernest Borgnine as Lucius
Katy Jurado as Sara
Vittorio Gassman as Sahak
Norman Wooland as Rufio
Valentina Cortese as Julia
Arnoldo Foa’ as Joseph of Arimathea
Michael Gwynn as Lazarus
Laurence Payne as Disciple
Douglas Fowley as Vasasio
Guido Celano as Scorpio
Carlo Giustini as Officer
Gianni di Benedetto as Officer
Robert Hall as Commander of Gladiators
Rina Braido as Tavern Reveler
Tullio Tomadoni as Blind Man
Joe Robinson as Gladiator
Frederich Ledebur as Officer
Marcello Di Martire
Spartaco Nale as Overseer
Maria Zanoli as Beggar Woman
Gustavo De Nardo
Vladimiro Picciafuochi


Roy Mangano as Jesus Christ
Paola Pitagora as Mary Magdalene
Rina Franchetti as Mary of Clopas
Piero Pastore as Nicodemus
Vera Drudi as Salome
Nino Segurini as Apostle John
Jacopo Tecchi as Apostle Thomas
Ivan Triesault as Emperor Nero
Sharon Tate as Patrician in arena



Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Nigel Balchin, Diego Fabbri, Christopher Fry, Salvatore Quasimodo, based on the novel Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist and the Gospel.
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Cinematography Aldo Tonti
Edited by Alberto Gallitti, Raymond Poulton
Music by Mario Nascimbene

Production company: Dino de Laurentiis

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release dates: December 23, 1961 (Italy); October 10, 1962 (US)

Running time: 137 minutes
Box office $2,900,000 (US)