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My past few posts have looked at films made about Christ and well known people in the Bible by Cecil B DeMille and Nicholas Ray.

Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings starring Jeffrey Hunter was released in 1961. Another film released that year is Richard Fleischer’s Barabbas starring Anthony Quinn. As the film poster of the time said, Barabbas

begins where the other big ones leave off!

I remember as a child being disappointed to find that Jesus hardly figured in this film. However, I saw it again a few years ago and found it a remarkably contemporary exploration of the thought processes of the most (in)famous career criminal in history.


The story begins with the Crucifixion. Barabbas is relieved at his reprieve. He plans a return to his dissolute routine but seeks to find out what happened to Jesus. He cannot help but go to see His body on the Cross then follows along to see our Lord buried. On the day of the Resurrection, Barabbas is astonished that the tomb is empty.

Meanwhile, Barabbas’s girlfriend Rachel has been turning her life around — towards Christ. Barabbas comes face to face with believer after believer for the rest of his life.

Rachel, full of faith, meets her death whilst preaching about Christ in Jerusalem. Barabbas attempts to avenge her death and is arrested. His sentence is to serve in the Roman mines in Sicily.

Still resistant to Christian teaching in a way which is surprisingly reminiscent of today’s secularists, Barabbas finds himself chained to a Christian in the mines. Quinn portrays a hostile, angry man, a stark contrast to the patient and calm Sahak. Their being chained so close together in searing heat and punishing work serves to heighten the tension brilliantly. You feel as if you are there with them.

An earthquake leaves the two opposites as the only survivors of the mine. They end up in Rome, thanks to the wife of the local prefect. There they begin careers as gladiators. Fleischer makes gladiator school and the subsequent bouts come alive.

As the gladiators must swear allegiance to everything Roman, including the gods, Sahak falls foul of the system. He cannot help but proclaim his faith. For this, he is sentenced to death.

Barabbas proves his athletic prowess in the arena, to the delight of Emperor Nero. Nero frees Barabbas which gives him the opportunity to take Sahak’s body to the city’s catacombs — and encounter more Christians. Barabbas finds himself face to face with the Apostle Peter.

That’s not the complete story, but I hesitate to reveal the ending.

Worth seeing

Barabbas is in keeping with the epics of the 1950s and early 1960s. Those who like Roman-style action will appreciate the lengthy gladiator sequences.

Those who wish to examine unbelief and belief will find much to ponder in this film. Quinn’s character stays much the same from beginning to end. He reminds me of a hostile version of many unbelievers I have known over the years who shut the life of Christ out of their lives, even when faced with the truth presented with love and charity.

The Prayer Foundation sums it up elegantly:

This fictional account of the real-life Barabbas, who was released by Pilate instead of Christ, brings to life the time of Christ, and causes us to think more deeply on the truth that Jesus died in our place.  Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) is forced to consider this fact, whether he wants to or not, because it is even more true in his own case. 

Film students and amateur auteurs will enjoy Fleischer’s direction, composition and Aldo Tonti’s fine cinematography. Colour contrasts and innovative framing of shots effectively draw viewers into the story, holding their interest throughout. Fleischer shows us a Barabbas alone not only in physical but also spiritual darkness. Even the Christians lose their patience with him at the end.

Mario Nascimbene‘s soundtrack is another highlight of the film. Nascimbene, whose career spanned six decades was renowned for the innovative use of sound effects in his music. Nascimbene came from a well-off family and, even in the late 1950s, was able to set up a state of the art sound studio in part of his house. There he experimented with various award-winning musical effects and techniques. He used his own invention — called the Mixerama — which had every possible sound recorded on it. Using reel-to-reel tapes, he could combine and transform these into pleasing ‘living’ melodies.

Fleischer’s varied films

Today’s film makers often choose a particular genre and stick with it. However, Richard Fleischer made an eclectic variety of films.

Fleischer’s father Max developed Popeye into an internationally known cartoon figure. He bought the rights to the comic strip character from King Features Syndicate and brought the spinach-eating sailor alive through animation.

Richard Fleischer graduated from Brown University then went to Yale School of Drama. His first full time job was with RKO studios, where he produced short, factual features.

He then moved into film noir, directing thrillers between 1948 and 1952. His tight direction style came to Walt Disney’s attention in the early 1950s. Disney asked him to direct 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which became an instant hit in 1954 and is still shown on television today.

Fleischer could direct any type of film, therefore, anyone reading this post has probably seen at least one of them. These include, among many others, Bandido (1956), Doctor Dolittle (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), 10 Rillington Place (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975), Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Fleischer died in his sleep on March 25, 2006, aged 89.

Further reading:

Futures and Pasts: Barabbas (Film Comment)

On Barabbas (The Film Journal)

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