During the decades of the 50’s and 60’s Hollywood cranked out biblical epic after biblical epic, most of them being mediocre or bad. Two films of this type that I’ve seen and believe to have artistic merit are Ben-Hur and Barabbas although I certainly don’t place either one on my “Best 10” list. Both rely heavily on violent, action scenes. In Ben-Hur there’s the naval battle and a chariot race. In Barabbas there’s the earthquake that destroys a sulfur mine, gladiatorial combats, and the Great Fire of Rome.
Well, there’s nothing particularly wrong with action scenes; but if you like character development and insight into the human psyche, an action film will seem shallow and unrewarding. I’ve already mentioned that Barabbas has plenty of action, but it also has psychological merit in its examination of Barabbas’ vacillation between faith and doubt. Moreover, in the gladiator Torvald we have a convincing portrait of a psychopath. Sometimes Barabbas is criticized for its pacing, for scenes that drag on too long. I think such critics are focused on the excitement of the action scenes and just not interested in the psychological and philosophical interludes that elevate Barabbas above the typical biblical epic.
Oh, I’ve forgotten to tell the reader that Barabbas is about the thief and revolutionary of the same name—the one who was released instead of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. The Gospels don’t give us any details of Barabbas’ subsequent life; but the film—based on Pär Lagerkvist’s 1951 novel—follows Barabbas as he returns to a life of crime, is sentenced to the mines, becomes a gladiator, and is crucified as one of the Christians blamed for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E.
Of course, the focus of the movie is Barabbas’ divided soul as he sometimes accepts, sometimes rejects “The Way” of the Christians. Peter, the Apostle, tells Barabbas, “There has been a wrestling in your spirit, back and forth in your life, which in itself is knowledge of God. By the conflict you have known Him.” I find Peter’s words reassuring as I myself have vacillated between religious faith and skeptical doubt. Perhaps other Friends in Old Chatham Meeting have experienced a similar tension.
Well, do I recommend that the reader see Barabbas? If violence troubles you, perhaps “no.” If you rather like grand spectacles but also enjoy character development, perhaps “yes.”
~ Richard Russell
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