Barabbas (1961): Richard Fleischer’s Religious Epic, Starring Anthony Quinn and International Castfilm

Richard Fleischer directed Barabbas, a religious epic about the life of the titular character, from the Christian Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark.

The film, which stars Anthony Quinn in a role originally planned for Yul Brynner, features an impressive international cast, including Silvana Mangano, Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Andrews, Ernest Borgnine, Vittorio Gassman, and Jack Palance.

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, 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, 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 film was released in Italy almost one year before it was shown in the U.S., on October 10, 1962.

Running time: 137 Minutes.