Barabbas: film review

The great sword and sandal flick you’ve never seen.

Richard Fleischers 1961 film Barabbas is the great sword and sandal flick you’ve never seen.

The film begins in a prison in Jerusalem. The bandit Barabas is held awaiting execution. As it is nearly the passover, the Roman governor, following tradition, offers to pardon one of his prisoners. Barrabas is chosen. He is released and ascends from the back door of the prison pit into the startling sun light.

At the same time another man is brought forth from the main entrance of the prison. He wears a robe and carries a heavy cross.

Their two lives diverge and converge throughout the film.

This is the sword and sandal rewritten as an existential road journey. The camera seems to focus on Barabbas, the richly evoked world of First Century Rome- a confusing backdrop. The character, played by Anthony Quinn, is an active man, but he does not drive his own life. This reflects the lack of free agency of people living in occupied societies, but also the fate of man seeking redemption.

Barabbas believes that he cannot die, but it is life that he lacks.

It is hard not to compare Barabbas with Ben Hur, which was released two years earlier. Both take place on the edges of biblical narrative and in both outsiders experience the other side of the Roman Empire. If Ben Hur experiences a fate worst than death as a galley slave, Barabbas is sentenced to the sulphur mines. If Ben Hur competes in the Hippodrome, Barabbas in the arena. Ben Hur ends the film, happily married and in possession of worldly wealth and the sure means of salvation. Less so for Barabbas, but Barabbas is perhaps meant to be seen as the more fortunate man.

Intriguingly, the actor playing Nero, Ivan Triesault, is the spit of Peter Ustinov’s Nero from Quo Vadis

Historical Barrabas

Barabbas is an allusive figure. According to the Gospel of Matthew, his full name is Jesus Barabbas. Jesus being a common name at the time. Barabbas means either son of the father (Bar as in Bar Mitzvah, and Abba as in Abba Father) or less likely Son of the Teacher (Rabba as in Rabbi, teacher). In the canonical Gospels, Jesus Christ called himself, Son of Man, 81 times.

The act of the crowd in choosing Barabbas over Jesus was a sign of their condemnation.

Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
Mt 27:25

In a later period, this verse became a justification for Christian anti-semitism which became sadly such a feature of Western societies.

It is an arresting verse and must have a (didactic) point. What it meant to early Christians, I do not know. The first Christians were Jews, some from Jewish religious backgrounds and some who had converted. It is therefore unlikely the verse meant a condemnation of all Jews.

Barabbas, who cannot die, at times resembles the myth of the Wandering Jew. The anti-Jewish figure who is cursed to walk the earth until the second coming. At the end he is very much amongst the blessed.

The film is in English, yet I assume Barabbas speaks Koine Greek. He is able to converse freely with most characters across different regions and classes of the Roman Empire.  Yet many people in Jerusalem speak with an accent. Is this Aramaic? In the catacombs of Rome, during the time of Nero, he stumbles on an early church service. The priests intone the Eucharist liturgy in Latin before switching to English. Many historians think the churches connected to St Paul were formed in Greek speaking Jewish communities.


Barabbas most closely resembles an ancient novel, perhaps like The Golden Ass by Apulius. It is episodic but leads to one end, which is redemption. Several Christian texts filled in the gaps in the narrative in the canonical gospels, creating spurious gospels of Christ’s youth or the life of Mary. As far as we know, Barabbas was not the hero of such a text, but perhaps he could have been. Pontius Pilate was.

A richly textured film of its time, it is still worth a watch.

Film poster

Photo references

Film poster used under Fair Use.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics