Allegedly Barabbas was a thief and murderer, but I never saw him do more than get wasted, try to hump women and burn Rome down. I guess he did kill a few guys, but this was the ancient world and people would run into your spear all the time then.
Barabbas was sentenced death by crucifixion the same day as Jesus. It was a tradition around that time of year in the Roman empire that the crowd voted on one dude to be set free. I suppose that keeps people coming back to watch these things, otherwise the weekly crucifixions probably get a little old and lose their impact.
For some reason, the choice this year is between Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas apparently had the more loud-mouthed friends because once survey time was over, the Romans freed him and went ahead and killed Jesus.
The premise of the movie is that Barabbas has to go around in life with the weight of the fact that the Son of God died in his place. The film then is a really long movie about survivor’s guilt and we all know how entertaining that is.
After he is set free, Barabbas tries to enjoy his new found lease on life the only way any of was would: drunken carousing with loose women! There is much drinking, dancing on tables and moves that only a player-hater could hate as Barabbas seeks to show everyone that getting Jesus killed isn’t about to slow him down.
Of course he manages to do all this partying at some honky tonk just down the street from the site of the crucifixion, so he periodically feels pangs of guilt and gets kind of down whenever Jesus walks by with his cross and whenever a solar eclipse rolls in to mark the crucifixion of Christ.
He goes to a hastily-arranged meeting with the apostles. Barabbas reads them the riot act and basically tries to steal the gimmick of the doubting Thomas though by this time I think that Thomas had be cured of his doubts.
This is where they introduce Barabbas to a very special guest – Lazarus! He and Barabbas have a talk, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what they said or even what the point of it all was. Presumably, Lazarus was putting Jesus over to Barabbas, but Barabbas got bored and left.
Following the stoning of his ex-girlfriend, Barabbas ends up in trouble with the law again. Since he has been spared death before, there is some kind of primitive double-jeopardy rule that he can’t be sentenced to death again so he’s shipped off to the sulfur pits.
Here he endures a living hell of digging stuff that blinds lesser men and it is also here that he runs into a guy who is a big time Christian and becomes the closest thing Barabbas has to a friend.
The picaresque adventures of Barabbas randomly continue as the sulfur pits explode and for no real good reason, he ends up at gladiator school! It’s a bit ridiculous since by this point Barabbas is almost 80 years old. You have to wonder why the Romans would be paying good money to see gladiator fights with washed-up, elderly criminals in them.
That said, in spite of the patent silliness of it, the gladiator school part of the movie is by far the most entertaining. It is here that we finally get our promised appearances by Ernest Borgnine and Jack Palance.
Borgnine doesn’t have much of a role and his big scenes involved stuff like refilling Barabbas’ water glass and making snarky comments when Barabbas shows up for a secret meeting of Christians.
Palance plays the part of the bad guy and does so chiefly through the use of a very bad “evil guy laugh” and accompanying grin. He’s this stud gladiator who has won his freedom several times over, but has rejected it so that he can continue fighting. It probably helps that he also gets to use a chariot and a net while his opponents stand helplessly around chucking a single spear in his direction.
The inevitable battle between this guy and Barabbas lacks any kind of emotional punch and plays like a junior varsity version of the chariot racing scene in Ben-Hur.
Once free from gladiator camp, Barabbas thinks that God wants him to destroy the pagan city so he sets a few fires, meets his fate and finally finds his faith.
The story of a guy getting all reformed, complete with tough times and good people dying all around him is an appealing one, but two-time Academy Award winner Anthony Quinn (but not for this movie!) doesn’t give Barabbas anything that is appealing as a character.
Quinn barely registers as he meanders through the various misadventures of Barabbas, has very little dialogue, very few scenes of dramatic impact and spends most of his time on the road to accepting the Christian faith, grunting and mumbling like he just woke up from his afternoon nap.
Barabbas is not one of Christianity’s more compelling infomercials and should be avoided just as you would own crotchety grandpa.
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