Film Review: Barabbas (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Who was Barabbas?

The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover.  As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice.  He could either release Barabbas or Jesus.  For what crime was Barabbas being held?  The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer.  The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary.  Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.

(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans.  There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role.  I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)

Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?

According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.

Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer.  Barabbas or Jesus?  Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself.  A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared.  Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.

(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming.  It’s a stunning scene.)

For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety.  When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus.  (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.)  Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior.  Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily.  He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance).  Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.

Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise.  I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances.  I mean, don’t me wrong.  I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics.  But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.

But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting.  As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion.  Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome.  Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy.  The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes.  Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption.  Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast.  Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.

Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film.  When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, Barabbas is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Zorba The Greek (dir by Michael Cacoyannis)


The 1964 film, Zorba the Greek, tells the story of two very different friends.

Basil (Alan Bates) is a writer.  (“Poetry, essays,” he diffidently says when asked what he writes.)  Basil is British-Greek but, having been raised in the UK, he allows his British side to dominate.  In this film, that means that Basil is very polite and very reserved.  He’s not the type to attempt to flirt with someone who he doesn’t know.  He has never spontaneously broken into dance.  When he is offered a drink, he asks for tea and is shocked to receive rum instead.  If the film was taking place a few decades later, one gets the feeling that Basil would describe Love, Actually as being an okay movie “for people who like that sort of thing.”

And then there’s Zorba (Anthony Quinn).  Unlike the wealthy and well-educated Basil, Zorba is a peasant and he’s proud of it.  He works hard but he plays hard too and there’s nothing that Zorba loves more than the sound of good music.  Zorba not only drinks rum but makes sure that everyone else gets their fill as well.  Zorba dances whenever he feels like it.  Zorba is larger than life, an unfailingly enthusiastic man who is determined to enjoy whatever time he has left in his life.

When Zorba and Basil first meet, Basil is heading to Crete where he’ll be trying to reopoen a mine that was left to him by his father.  As for Zorba, he’s looking for work and, as he explains it, he has tons of experience working as a miner.  Though Basil is, at first, reluctant to hire someone who he’s just met, Zorba talks him into it.  As quickly becomes apparent, the exuberant Zorba can talk people into almost anything.

You can probably guess where all of this is going.  Zorba teaches Basil how to embrace life, which in this film means embracing the Greek side of his heritage.  It takes a while, of course.  Basil is an extremely reluctant protegé and a good deal of the film’s humor comes from just how uncomfortable Basil occasionally gets with his newfound friend.  That said, you don’t have to be a psychic to guess that eventually, the two of them will share a dance on the beach.  It may be predictable but that’s not to say that Zorba the Greek isn’t a good film.  It’s a very good and entertaining movie, featuring a justifiably famous soundtrack and also one of Anthony Quinn’s best and most exuberant performances.

In fact, Quinn is so perfectly cast as Zorba that he occasionally tends to overshadow Alan Bates, who is equally good but in a different way.  In fact, I would say that Bates probably had the more difficult role.  Whereas Zorba (and Quinn) spends the entire movie instigating, Basil (and Bates) spends the entire movie reacting.  It’s difficult to make passivity watchable but Bates manages to do it.

Of course, Zorba isn’t just a comedy about an unlikely friendship.  About halfway through the film, there’s a moment of shocking brutality involving a young widow played by Irene Pappas.  It took me totally by surprise and it left me a bit shaken.  (It also reminded me a bit of another European film featuring Irene Pappas, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling.)  It’s a scene that serves as a reminder that 1) not every peasant is Zorba the Greek and 2) friendship and love cannot end darkness but it can make it all a little more bearable.

Zorba the Greek was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to My Fair Lady.

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)


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Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly…

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A Movie A Day #103: Mobsters (1991, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff)


The place is New York City.  The time is the prohibition era.  The rackets are controlled by powerful but out of touch gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Salvatore Faranzano (Michael Gambon).  However, four young gangsters — Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and Bugsy Siegel (Richard Greico) — have an ambitious plan.  They want to form a commission that will bring together all of the Mafia families as a national force.  To do it, they will have to push aside and eliminate the old-fashioned mob bosses and take over the rackets themselves.  When Masseria and Faranzano go to war over who will be the new Boss of all Bosses, Luciano and Lansky seen their opportunity to strike.

I love a good gangster movie, which is one reason that I have never cared much for Mobsters. Mobsters was made in the wake of the success of Young Guns and, like that film, it attempted to breathe new life into an old genre by casting teen heartthrobs in the lead roles.  There was nothing inherently wrong with that because Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel were all still young men, in their 20s and early 30s, when they took over the Mafia.  (Costello was 39 but Mobsters presents him as being the same age as they other three.)  The problem was that none of the four main actors were in the least bit convincing as 1920s mobsters.  Christian Slater was the least convincing Sicilian since Alex Cord in The Brotherhood.  As for the supporting cast, actors like Chris Penn and F. Murray Abraham did the best that they could with the material but Anthony Quinn’s performance in Mobsters was the worst of his long and distinguished career.

Fans of Twin Peaks will note that Lara Flynn Boyle had a small role in Mobsters.  She played Luciano’s girlfriend.  Unfortunately, other than looking pretty and dying tragically, she was not given much to do in this disappointing gangster film.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)


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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher…

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Not Quite Spaghetti: Guns For San Sebastian (1968, directed by Henri Verneuil)


bdssposLeon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) is an outlaw in 18th century Mexico who is given sanctuary and hidden from the Spanish authorities by a kindly priest, Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe).  In return, Leon agrees to escort the priest to a peasant village that is under siege from the Yaqui Indians.  During the journey, Joseph dies and when Leon arrives at the village, he is mistaken for the priest.  Even though Leon’s an atheist and a womanizer, he pretends to be a man of God and tries to broker a peace with the Yaqui’s bloodthirsty leader, Golden Lance (Jaime Fernandez).  Standing in the way is Teclo (Charles Bronson), a mestizo rebel who wants to keep the Spanish and the Yaqui at war.

Because it features a score by Ennio Morricone and co-stars Charles Bronson, Guns For San Sebastian is often mistakenly referred to as being a spaghetti western.  Instead, it was a big budget American-French co-production that was filmed, on location, in Mexico. (The majority of spaghettis were filmed in Spain.)  While revolution in Mexico was a popular backdrop for many spaghetti westerns, none of them were as sympathetic to the church or the government as Guns for San Sebastian.  If Guns For San Sebastian were a true spaghetti western, Teclo would be the hero.

Guns For San Sebastian is an above average western that starts out slow but gets better as it approaches the exciting final battle between the villagers and Yaqui.  Morricone provides another great and rousing score but the main reason to watch Guns For San Sebastian is to see Anthony Quinn and Charles Bronson, two legendary tough guys, acting opposite each other and competing to see who can be the most intimidating.  In the movie, Quinn may win but you can still see the determined presence that led to Bronson becoming an unlikely movie star in the 70s.

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This Eagle Doesn’t Fly: FLAP (Warner Brothers 1970)


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FLAP is an attempt by director Sir Carol Reed to jump on the late 60’s/early70’s “relevance” bandwagon by depicting the modern-day mistreatment of the American Indian. It’s a seriocomic character study that struggles to find it’s identity, and as a result fails at both comedy and drama.

FLAP is Flapping Eagle, an ex-soldier living back on the reservation who’s “pissed off at everybody”. He’s a hard drinking man, as is just about all the Indians here, feeding into the stereotypical “drunken Indian” image. Flap’s had enough of the noise coming from construction workers building a highway project right next to the rez, and causes a fracas between the hardhats and the Indians, damaging a bulldozer in the process. Native Wounded Bear (who has a correspondence school law degree) points out the highway is gong through sacred burial ground, which turns out not to be the case. Everyone’s up in arms, especially local…

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