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.

 

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Gor (dir by Fritz Kiersch)


The 1987 film Gor opens with a nerdy college professor (played by Urbano Barberini, of Demons and Opera fame) giving perhaps the worst lecture in the history of underwhelming lectures.  The professor explains that there is a counter-earth, a place that he claims is known as Gor.  Gor shares the same orbit as Earth but it’s linearly opposed to Earth, which apparently makes it impossible to see.  However, the professor says that his father gave him a ring which can transport the user to Gor.  The only problem is that the professor has not figured out how to use the ring.

The students all look incredibly bored with the lecture and I don’t blame them.  Not only does the professor seem to be rambling but he doesn’t even offer up any visual aides.  He could have at least utilized a powerpoint presentation or something.  Instead, his only teaching aide is a whiteboard on which he’s written “counter-earth.”  I have to wonder what their final exam is going to look like.  “True or false.  Your professor is a freaking loon.”

(I found myself wondering what university would possibly grant tenure to some guy who thinks he owns a magic ring but then I remembered Evergreen College.)

The professor’s name is Tarl Cabot and I think that’s a good deal of his problem right there.  When you give a child a name like Tarl Cabot, you’re pretty much guaranteeing that he’s going to grow up believing that he has a magic ring that’ll transport him to another planet.

Of course, in Tarl’s case, it turns out that the ring does just that.  After his teaching assistant dumps him so that she can go on a date with another professor, Tarl crashes his car and when he wakes up, he finds himself on Gor.  Apparently, the ring only works if you crash your car or something.

As for Gor itself, it turns out to be kind of a dump.  It’s a huge desert.  Seriously, check out this counter-earth:

If Tarl wanted to see a desert, he could have just driven around Southern California and saved himself a lot of trouble.

Yes, there is trouble in Gor.  No sooner has Tarl arrived then he’s being attacked by a bunch of barbarians on horseback.  The barbarians are led by the evil Sarm (played by Oliver Reed).  Much as with the case of Tarl Cabot, I think that once you name a child Sarm, you’ve pretty much guaranteed the way that his life is going to turn out.  Anyway, Tarl somehow survives being attacked by the barbarians.  He even manages to kill Sarm’s son, which leads to Sarm declaring that he wants Tarl dead.

Fortunately, Tarl is eventually rescued by another group of barbarians.  This group is led by Talena (Rebecca Ferratti) and she wants Tarl to help her rescue her father from Sarm’s fortress.  But how can Tarl help when he’s literally useless?  Don’t worry!  The good barbarians are willing to train Tarl.  One montage later, Tarl is now a master swordsman.  Now, all Tarl has to do is dress like a barbarian and then track down a little person who can serve as a guide to Sarm’s fortress!

And what a fortress it is!  Sarm may be evil but he likes to make sure that both his guests and his slaves have a good time.  Sarm welcomes Tarl to the fortress and even tries to recruit him over to his side.  (So apparently, Sarm’s over that whole “you killed my son” thing.)  Sarm understands that the best way to recruit Tarl is with a dance number!  As Sarm laughs lustfully, the slaves put on a show.  It’s somewhat out-of-place but at least it distracts from the rest of the film.

Anyway, there’s a lot of problems with Gor but the main one is that the place itself just doesn’t seem like it’s worth all the trouble.  After spending years trying to figure out how to get to the planet, Tarl arrives and discovers that it’s basically the same desert that was used in almost every post-apocalyptic film made in the 80s and 90s.  (In fact, judging from John Carter, it’s still being used today.)  What I always wonder about this type of movie is 1) why is the other planet always full of humans who speak perfect English and 2) why do all of these planets feature a society that resembles that ancient Roman Empire?  Apparently, swords and arrows are literally universal weapons because they’re used on every planet in the universe.

When I first saw that this film starred Urbano Barberini, I assumed that it was going to turn out to be an Italian production.  (In the late 80s, there were several Italian films that featured barbarians fighting in post-apocalyptic landscapes.)  However, it turns out that Gor was a South African production, co-produced by the legendary Harry Alan Towers and directed by an American named Firtz Kiersch.  (Kiersch also directed the first film version of Children of the Corn.)  That said, the film itself is so ineptly dubbed and the production values are so low-budget that it would still be easy to mistake Gor for a film directed by Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso.

Because he’s so badly dubbed, it’s difficult to really judge Barberini’s performance as Tarl Cabot.  At the very least, he looks good with a sword in his hand and he’s cute — if never quite believable — when he plays Tarl as a neurotic physicist.  However, Barberini can’t really compete with Oliver Reed, who devours every inch of scenery that he can find.  Reed bellows and laughs and appears to be drunk in almost every scene in which he appears but at least he seems to be having a good time.  Reed is also required to wear a silly helmet in most of his scenes and I sincerely hope that he got to take it home with him.

Oliver Reed isn’t the only familiar face to pop up in Gor.  There’s also Jack Palance.  Palance only shows up for about two minutes and he looks rather confused as he discusses his plan to conquer the world.  (Apparently, Palance returned in Gor‘s sequel.)  For two minutes of screen time, Palance managed to score himself third billing in the opening credits of Gor, above even Oliver Reed!  Way to go, Jack!

Anyway, Gor is a pretty stupid movie.  I appreciated the random dance number but otherwise, it’s fairly dull and only occasionally enlivened by Oliver Reed’s refusal to go gently into that dark night.  I’m going to guess that films like this were popular with filmgoers who saw themselves as real-life Tarl Cabots and who spent their spare time thinking, “Nobody will laugh at me once they see me with a sword!”  I caught the film yesterday on Comet TV, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite channels for watching bad movies.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?


cracked rear viewer

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shane (dir by George Stevens)


“Hey, Shane!  Come back, Shane!”

There’s a few ways in which you can view the 1953 film, Shane.

The more popular view is that it’s a Western about a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into town and gets a job working for the Starretts, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur).  Joe is a farmer who is determined to hold onto his land, despite the efforts of cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) to force him off of it.  While we don’t learn much about Shane’s background, it becomes apparent that he’s a man who can fight.  That comes in handy when Ryker brings in a sinister gunfighter named Wilson (Jack Palance).

Another view is that Shane is the story of a man who just wants to settle down but, instead, finds himself continually hounded by an annoying little kid, to the extent that he finally gets involved in a gun battle just so he’ll have an excuse to leave town and get away from the little brat.  Little Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) idolizes Shane from the minute that he comes riding up.  When he hears that Shane refused to get into a fight at the local saloon, Joey demands to know whether it was true.  He tells his mom that he loves Shane almost as much as he loves his father.  When Shane does get into a brawl with all of Ryker’s men, Joey stands in the corner and eats candy.  And then, when Shane tries to leave town, Joey runs behind him shouting, “Come back, Shane!  Come back!”

Myself, I think of it as being the story of Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  Frank is the farmer that’s been nicknamed “Stonewall,” due to his status as a former Confederate and his quick temper.  Stonewall may be smaller than the other farmers but he’s usually the quickest to take offense.  Still, it’s impossible not to like him, largely because he’s played by Elisha Cook, Jr.  When Wilson feels the need to put the farmers in their place, he does so by picking a fight with Torrey.  Standing on a porch in the rain, looking down on the smaller man, Wilson starts to insult both him and the South.  When Torrey finally starts to reach for his gun, Wilson shoots him dead.  While Torrey lies in the mud, Wilson smirks.  It’s a shocking scene, all the more so for being shown in a long shot.  (By forcing those of us in the audience to keep our distance from the shooting, the film makes us feel as powerless as the farmers.)  If you didn’t already hate Wilson and Ryker, you certainly will after this scene.

Shane is a deceptively simple film, one in which many of the details are left open for interpretation.  We never learn anything about Shane’s background.  He’s a man who shows up, tries to make a life for himself, and then leaves.  He’s a marksman and an obviously experienced brawler but, unlike Ryker’s men, he never specifically looks for violence.  In fact, he often seems to avoid it.  Why?  The film doesn’t tell us but there are hints that Shane is haunted by his past.  Shane seems to want a chance to have a life like the Starretts but, once he’s forced to again draw his gun, he knows that possibility no longer exists.

Is Shane in love with Marian Starrett?  It certainly seems so but, again, the film never specifically tells us.  Instead, it all depends on how one interprets the often terse dialogue and the occasional glances that Marian and Shane exchance.  When Shane and Joe get into a fist fight to determine who will face Ryker and Wilson, is Shane really trying to protect Joe or is it that he knows Marian will be heart-broken if her husband is killed?

One thing’s for sure.  Little Joey sure does love Shane.  “Come back, Shane!”  Little Joey follows Shane everywhere, with a wide-eyed look on his face.  To be honest, it didn’t take too long for me to get sick of Little Joey.  Whenever director George Stevens needed a reaction shot, he would cut to Joey looking dumb-founded.  Brandon deWilde was 11 years when he appeared in Shane and he was nominated for an Oscar but he’s actually pretty annoying in the role.  Elisha Cook, Jr. was far more impressive and deserving of a nomination.

I know that many people consider Shane to be a classic.  I thought it was good, as long as the action was focused on the adults.  Alan Ladd plays Shane like a man who is afraid to get too comfortable in any situation and the film works best when it compares his reticence to Wilson’s cocky confidence.  Whenever Joey took center stage, I found myself wanting to cover my ears.

Shane was nominated for Best Picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.

Horror on the Lens: Without Warning (dir by Greydon Clark)


For today’s horror on the Shattered Lens, we have 1980’s Without Warning.  

In this horror/sci-fi hybrid, humans are hunted by an alien hunter who uses a variety of weapons and … what was that?  No, we’re not watching Predator.  We’re watching Without Warning.  For the record, Without Warning and Predator may have almost exactly the same plot but Without Warning came out long before Predator.

(Interestingly enough, Kevin Peter Hall played the intergalactic hunter in both films.)

Anyway, Without Warning is probably the best film that Greydon Clark ever directed.  Some would say that’s not saying much but seriously, Without Warning is a surprisingly effective film.  It also has a large cast of guest stars, the majority of whom are killed off within minutes of their first appearance.  That alien takes no prisoners!  (I especially feel sorry for the cub scouts.)

Of course, the main characters are four teenagers.  One of them is played by David Caruso, which I have to admit amuses me to no end.

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #170: Chato’s Land (1972, directed by Michael Winner)


Don’t mess with Charles Bronson.

That’s the main lesson that can be taken away from Chato’s Land.  In this western, Bronson plays Chato, an Apache who enters the wrong saloon and is forced to shoot a racist sheriff in self-defense.  Former Confederate Captain Quincey Whitemore (Jack Palance) forms a posse to track Chato down but soon discovers that his posse is not made up of the best and brightest.  Instead, most of them are sadistic racists who just want to kill Apaches.  Despite Whitemore’s efforts to stop them, the posse rapes Chato’s wife and kills his best friend.  Chato trades his white man’s clothes for a loin cloth and sets out for revenge.

Chato’s Land is historically significant because it was the first of many films that Charles Bronson made with Michael Winner.  The most famous Bronson/Winner collaboration was Death Wish, which also featured Charles Bronson as a man who seeks revenge after his wife is raped.  What is surprising about Chato’s Land is how little screen time Bronson actually has.  Most the film is spent with the posse, which is full of familiar faces (Richard Jordan, Simon Oakland, Victor French, Ralph Waite, and James Whitmore all report for duty).  It actually works to the film’s advantage, making Bronson even more intimidating than usual.  There’s never any doubt that Chato is going to kill every member of the posse but since almost every member of the posse is loathsome, that’s not a problem.

It’s possible that Chato’s Land was meant to be an allegory for the Vietnam War, which is probably giving Michael Winner too much credit.  (In an interview, the author of Death Wish, Brian Garfield, once shared an anecdote about Winner inserting a shot of three nuns into Death Wish and bragging about how the shot was meaningless but that it would fool the critics into thinking he was making a grand statement about something.)  Like most of Winner’s films, Chato’s Land is good but not great.  There are parts of the movie that drag and Jack Palance and Charles Bronson don’t get to share any big scenes together, which seems like a missed opportunity.  Bronson, who was always underrated as an actor, gives one of his better performances as Chato.  Chato does not say much but Bronson could do more with one glare than most actors could do with a monologue.  In Europe, Bronson was known as Il Brutto and Chato’s Land features him at his most brutal.

Film Review: Cocaine Cowboys (dir by Ulli Lommel)


Two million dollars worth of cocaine has gone missing in Long Island and Andy Warhol is on the case!

Believe it or not, that’s actually a fairly accurate summation of this 1979 film.  The film does feature a plot about several people looking for a lot of missing cocaine and Andy Warhol does play himself.  And Andy does discover what happened to the cocaine!  He even leaves behind some helpful Polaroids of the cocaine’s location, all of which he signs, “Good Luck, Andy!”

But, here’s the thing.  This is an 80 minutes film.  Though Andy appears at different moments throughout the film, he really only has less than 10 minutes of screentime.  He spends most of that time lurking around with a camera and muttering the occasional word of wisdom.

What’s goes on during the rest of the movie?  Not much.  While waiting to make it big with his band, Dustin (Tom Sullivan) has been making ends meet by smuggling cocaine.  Even though Dustin and the rest of the band want to get out of the drug business, their manager (Jack Palance … wait, Jack Palance!?) sets up one last score.  Unfortunately, while the cocaine is being flown out to Long Island, it falls out of the plane and lands in the water!  Uh-oh!  The drug dealers want their cocaine.  Jack Palance wants the cocaine.  The band wants to find the cocaine and they’re even willing to ride around to horses to look for it.  Some other people want the cocaine but I’m not sure who they were supposed to be.  Andy Warhol does not want the cocaine.  He just wants to talk about Interview Magazine and take pictures of the band.

Almost everyone wants to find the cocaine but, interestingly enough, they’re all pretty laid back about it.  Sure, the band might spend some time looking but they’re just as likely to be found performing a song.  To be honest, the band’s not that bad.  I went to the University of North Texas, which is famous for its music school, and the band definitely has a UNT sound to it.  They’re good without being so good that you’d ever expect them to become stars.  The band’s best song features Dustin going, “We’re cocaine cowboys,” over and over again.

According to The Warhol Diaries, the film’s star, Tom Sullivan, was a real-life drug dealer.  This movie was his attempt to recreate himself as both a film star and rock star.  It didn’t work.  This was Tom Sullivan’s only film credit and he died two years later, at the age of 23.

So, maybe you’re wondering how Jack Palance and Andy Warhol ended up in this obscure little film.  Well, I don’t know what Palance was doing there and, judging from his performance, he didn’t know either.  Warhol was in the film because 1) it was filmed at his Long Island estate and 2) he was friends with director Ulli Lommel.  Today, Lommel is best known for directing crappy true crime horror films but, at the start of his career, he was a protegé of both Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s and Andy Warhol’s.

(Lommel’s then-wife and financial backer, Suzanna Love, also appears in the film.  Horror fans will immediately recognize her from her starring turns in Lommel’s The Boogeyman and The Devonsville Terror.)

Particularly when compared to Ulli Lommel’s later, better-known films (like the unwatchable Curse of the Zodiac), Cocaine Cowboys isn’t that bad.  It’s pointless but it’s pointless by design.  Everyone in the film is so detached and out-of-it that the film becomes a portrait of ennui.  It’s a film that very much shows the influence of Fassbinder and Warhol, taking a popular genre — in this case, the drug rip-off film — and then tearing away at all of the artifice.  “Really?  The French Connection had a car chase?” the film seems to be saying, “Well, Cocaine Cowboys doesn’t have anything!  Just like real life.”

Of course, that’s not totally true.  Cocaine Cowboys does have something.  It has Andy Warhol solving a mystery and that’s got to be worth something.