Barabbas (1961) Review

barabbasfilmcover

Back in its “Golden Era,” in “the good old days,” Hollywood used to turn out biblical epics. Not that ever film was an epic of biblical proportions, but biblical in theme, and had a tendency to stretch beyond a two-hour runtime. One such film is one of my favorites, an Easter tradition firmly entrenched in my Easter film cannon. This year I read Pär Lagerkvist’s novel for the first time and watched the film a few days early to make sure I got it in without missing out on a few others. I’m referring to 1961’s Barabbas, which by the way clocks in at 2 hours and 17 minutes.

While not exactly a star-studded cast, Barabbas does have a few names of note to mention. For starters, it’s a Dino De Laurentis production. His producer credits sit at 174 on IMDb, so you’ve seen at least one of his films, probably quite a few. Sitting in the director’s chair is Richard Fleischer (Conan the Destroyer and Soylent Green to name a couple). Italian actress Silvana Mangano appears near the top of the bill. I don’t know the reason as she doesn’t have a large role and appears at the beginning. She’s prettier than the novel’s character she’s based. Alongside her in those opening scenes is Katy Jurado of High Noon fame. The legendary Anthony Quinn stars in the title role. The last two actors are legends as well and need no introductions or reminders, Ernest Borgnine and Jack Palance.

Quinn may be the star in the title role, but the MVP of the film goes to Palance. He’s a scene stealer and plays his role to perfection. Brash, arrogant, and a young handsome rogue. The exact opposite of what Quinn’s Barabbas has become by the time they meet. Palance plays his part like a great old school pro wrestling heel. He’s the guy you love to hate, and can’t wait to see him get what’s coming to him. Quinn is in the midst of a baby face turn with a step forward and a slide back so many times it’s hard to track. He’s gone as far as he can on his own and needs a push over the hump in the form of a great adversary with no redeemable qualities people can’t help but hate. Thank you Jack Palance and thank you scriptwriter Christopher Fry for allowing this feud to breathe and develop by not rushing it. By the way, none of this appeared in the original novel.

Barabbas isn’t a perfect film. There’s some bad overdubbed lines in the tavern scenes which are quite noticeable. However, there’s an eclipse scene, and it’s not faked with ancient special effects or stock footage. It’s the real deal and held up the filming schedule to film this event as it occurred on February 15, 1961. I’m waiting for a proper Blu-ray release, but for now my DVD does fine. Barabbas isn’t just one of my favorite Easter films, but all-time favorite films regardless of the time of year.

Copyright © Drew Martin 2017

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