At the moment of this writing Son of God is earning decent coin in multiplexes, despite being a rehash of footage from a History Channel miniseries, and the gathering clouds suggest a deluge of kitsch is on the horizon with the forthcoming arrival of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Is the Biblical epic well and truly back?

Best to withhold judgment on that point, though forgive me if I am skeptical of the prospects of either of the abovementioned works achieving greatness. For those wishing to retreat to a more fecund period in the genre’s history, however, there is good news. Tomorrow, Paramount’s new 1080p Blu-Ray transfer of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah will be out, and this week, New Yorkers can see a 35mm print of Richard Fleischer’s Barabbas writ large upon Anthology Film Archives’ screen.

Barabbas, a bona fide spectacle which includes a mine collapse, gladiatorial combats replete with lions and elephants, and Rome in flames, is playing as part of a mini-retro of Fleischer’s films at Anthology which I co-programmed with FILM COMMENT’s Nic Rapold. The nine-movie sampler endeavors to draw representative works from every phase of the director’s four-decade career, while steering around the films that have more recently screened in New York.

A bit of remedial Sunday school: Barabbas is a footnote character in the Gospels. Here is how the brigand and cutthroat is referred to in my King James Bible in Matthew 27: 15-22, in which governor Pontius Pilate is presiding over the sentencing of Christ:

“Now at that feast [Passover] the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, ‘Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?’ . . . The governor answered and said unto them, ‘Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you?’ They said ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate saith unto them, ‘What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?’ They all say unto him, ‘Let him be crucified.’”  

The lucky Barabbas would be the subject of fiction and drama before and after Pär Lagerkvist’s 1950 Barabbas, published when the Swedish writer was nearly 60, but Lagerkvist’s was the definitive work. The year after its publication, Lagerkvist received the Nobel Prize for Literature—a fact noted in the opening credits of Fleischer’s Barabbas, because producer Dino De Laurentiis was going to get his money’s worth out of the prestige he’d paid for.

I have not seen Alf Sjöberg’s 1953 adaptation of Barabbas for comparison, but Fleischer’s film begins with the scene described by Matthew. Pilate addresses the people of Jerusalem in the inimitable Massachusetts honk of Arthur Kennedy, while Barabbas, described as “a rebel, a robber, and an assassin” wakes up hungover in a dim dungeon underneath the credit “STARRING ANTHONY QUINN.”

Barabbas is freed, and Jesus takes up his cross and begins his march to death. From Pilate washing his hands, Fleischer cuts to Barabbas washing his own in a public fountain. He then returns to his usual haunt, what writers of another period would refer to as a “low tavern,” where he is received as “the old rascal back from the dead,” and feted as “King Barabbas,” crowned with a wicker basket in a parody of the crowning of Christ as the King of the Jews. Barabbas’s celebration is only interrupted when, in the middle of a bright afternoon, the sky goes suddenly dark. The rabble spill out of the tavern in time to witness a full eclipse occurring behind Golgotha, bathing the crucified figures on the hilltop with ethereal light. (Several shots here were captured during an actual solar eclipse, filmed at Nice.)

In 10 minutes of screentime, Barabbas has been compared to Pilate, Christ, and Lazarus—whom he will briefly meet, played by the British actor Michael Gwynn as a caulky demi-ghost. Quinn encounters miracles such as this with his usual register of gruff truculence. His Barrabas is a quarrelsome animal, drunkenly lurching through Jerusalem’s alleys when on the prowl, though beneath the peasant suspiciousness, his wary squint betrays a glimmer of vigorous intelligence. Barabbas knows enough to descry the mirror image of his own barbarity in Roman officialdom. “Whichever side of the law we’re on, we’re the same men,” he tells Pilate at a second hearing that ends in Barabbas’s enslavement and deportation, putting a too-fine point on the visual match made earlier.

Now the property of Rome, Barabbas will spend 20 years in the sulfur mines of Sicily, perform backbreaking fieldwork, train in a gladiatorial academy, fight in the arena, and finally escape to the catacombs of the early Christians—for as Barabbas grows old, the renown of the man who was crucified in his place spreads. Haunted by what possible meaning his own survival might have, Barabbas vacillates between the role of victim and victimizer, halfheartedly converting to the new faith at the urging of a fellow slave (Vittorio Gassman) only to backslide again. The visual correlative to Barrabas’s inner turmoil is an overarching metaphor of dark and light designed by Fleischer and his gifted DP Aldo Tonti, whose credits include several of Roberto Rossellini’s canonical early works, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Nick Ray’s The Savage Innocents, and John Huston’s jaundiced Reflections in a Golden Eye. Barabbas is, in large part, a subterranean film, filled with almost tenebrist compositions, but it is marked by occasional flashes of blinding light. Emerging from his first imprisonment, Barabbas is struck by the image of Christ, the sun creating a halo around the pale Nazarene’s hanging head—a scene closely echoed in Barabbas’s emergence from the sulfur mines. Elsewhere, in near hysteria, Barabbas will recount the strange phenomenon accompanying the crucifixion: “That wasn’t light. The dark. That wasn’t dark. That wasn’t dark, that was life…”

The crucifixion and eclipse are accompanied by an arrangement of the plainchant “Kyrie eleison” which recurs in variations throughout the film. This is the work of Mario Nascimbene, who wrote the score, conducted by Franco Ferrara. Nascimbene had previously written the music for Fleischer’s 1958 The Vikings and later, beginning with 1967’s Survival, would collaborate extensively with Rossellini. Rossellini sat in with Nascimbene while he scored live at his “Mixerama” console, a synthesizer of his own invention and precursor to the sampler, contributing extraterrestrial electronic sounds to Rossellini’s sui generis historical films: Socrates, Blaise Pascal, Augustine of Hippo, Cartesius, Year One (Anno uno), and, yes, perhaps the strangest Biblical epic of all, 1975’s The Messiah.

Nascimbene, who was very well-to-do, had a home studio equipped with the latest technology, and was on the forefront of magnetic tape-based developments in absolute music circa 1960. In order to distinguish the Barabbas score from those written by contemporaries on other Biblical epics, Nascimbene scored it using the Mixerama, which he described in a 1986 interview with Soundtrack Magazine:

“The ‘Mixerama’ is an instrument which contains 12 stereo cassette tapes, so you can get 24 different sounds. I have more than 1,000 cassettes like that. I have recorded all the possible sounds the musicians in an orchestra can make, from the piccolo to the contrabass, male and female voices, the strings (now sharp, then soft, then trilling or pizzicato…) on all the notes of the musical scale . . . When I had all the sounds separately, I recorded the high and low ranges of every single note, and then recorded them separately onto the stereo cassette tapes. So in the end I had truly infinite possibilities of a mixture of sound. Each note had its own sound, but three or four used together change that sound. It’s all pulsating, creative, ‘living’ sound. Unlike modern computer keyboards, the ‘Mixerama’ uses pure sound treated in a human way.”

Scoring the crucifixion in Barabbas, for example, Nascimbene combined “voices, a soprano and two strings during an extended five-minute segment at the moment of the eclipse itself; [and] the sound of a bass at half speed.” While Nascimbene’s compositions for Barabbas don’t approach the same level of abstraction as his work with Rossellini, the sound design is full of what were, at the time, radical elements. In the scene which shows the scourging of Christ, for example, a metallic slicing sound is accompanied by a chorus of rising and falling feminine wails which sound like they come from a roller coaster plunging downhill—although there are no women present. The gatefold sleeve for the soundtrack LP release brands it “The Most Innovational [sic] Movie Score Ever Recorded”—those so inclined can find the album on Spotify.

The Boston Strangler

In its score and in almost every other regard, Barabbas is a very different approach to the Biblical epic, endeavoring to tell the story of early Christianity through the Life of Un-Christ. You could be forgiven if you have never heard of it nevertheless, for both subject matter and filmmaker are fallen out of fashion. Though even most skeptics will accede to the resourcefulness of Fleischer’s early B noirs (Armored Car Robbery, Trapped, The Narrow Margin), his standing within the ranks of American cinema has long been a matter of some question. In part this is because the diversity of his output, including a precipitous decline in his final decade, has made him a problematic figure for auteur candidacy. If one clear worldview that can be extrapolated from his work, particularly in the great crime-and-punishment trilogy of Compulsion (59), The Boston Strangler (68), and 10 Rillington Place (71), it is a staunch opposition to the death penalty. One can even locate this in Barabbas, which does after all begin with the execution of an innocent man. And Barabbas lines up quite well with Fleischer’s later work with Dino De Laurentiis Productions, Mandingo (75) and Conan the Destroyer (84), both movies which may be said to deal with the struggle for self-determination.

Fleischer returned to narratives of manumission and emancipation, and had a disorderly career to match. Despite this, he never successfully styled himself as a system-bucking “maverick” like, say, Robert Altman, who co-wrote the story that was the basis for Fleischer’s 1948 Bodyguard, released when Altman had just begun his struggle to break into the pictures business. While Altman wouldn’t direct his first Hollywood fiction feature for 20 years, Fleischer was steadily working for most of that time, his output including 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, a film that came to symbolize the Old Hollywood excess that Altman & Co. were soon to wash away. Or witness the strange fate of The Last Run (71), whose direction Fleischer took over after John Huston walked off the set over a row with star George C. Scott. It’s a major film, with a pained, poignant performance by Scott, a great Alan Sharp script (“I don't blow boxes, man, I blow heads. When I say bang, everything gets suddenly dark”), and umbrous photography by Sven Nykvist, and it shows Fleischer every bit as alive to the new, permissive possibilities of the period as Huston would prove to be with Fat City in 1973. (By that point Fleischer had already been on a great post-Doolittle run with The Boston Strangler, Rillington, See No Evil, and The New Centurions, the latter two also playing Anthology.) Huston, son of actor Walter, was born into showbiz every bit as much as Fleischer, the son of animator Max—but while Fleischer conducted his struggle for artistic liberty privately, Huston was the famously studio-stymied genius of Lillian Ross’s Picture and ran wild in Ireland with his horses and hated Beverly Hills, and so contemporary critics were not kind to the The Last Run.

The Last Run

Fleischer was no mere docile company stooge, however. As he details in his 1993 autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry, after the succès d’estime of Compulsion, he decamped to work in Europe, far away from the heart of the biz and its meddling producers. Following an ill-fated tenure with Darryl Zanuck, who had left Fox and set up shop as an independent producer in Paris, De Laurentiis came calling for Fleischer, and he hightailed it down to De Laurentiis’s Rome studio. The offices were located on “a dreary, industrial slum on the Via della Vasca Navale” next to a Gypsy encampment. Despite the unpromising digs, De Laurentiis had Samuel Bronstein–sized ambitions, and he built Jerusalem and the Praetorium from the ground up for Fleischer on several hundred acres of grassland in the Mezzogiorno which would later become his studio, nicknamed Dinocitta. (After Barabbas premiered in June of ’62, Fleischer had the longest lean period of his own career, not directing again until 1966’s Fantastic Voyage.)

The ancient world that production designer Mario Chiari re-created at times looks chintzier than its $10 million budget—the tomb where Christ is buried, for example, is a pile of broken-up cement. There is more veracity to the scenes of the coliseum, filmed in Verona, or the sulfur mines, filmed near the volcanic Mount Etna, and introduced in a panoramic shot that must have looked well and truly astonishing in one of the 70mm “Super Technirama 70” roadshow prints. Fleischer’s first widescreen production was Walt Disney Productions’ CinemaScope 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (54), and in the years to follow he would remain one of the foremost poets of the anamorphic frame. He used it not only for epic sweep, but as a plane that could be broken into individual quadrants of action (most experimentally in The Boston Strangler), or with sections blocked off to develop genuine isolation and claustrophobia, as in the mine sequences, permeated with a steamy yellow dust and hemmed in with a gridwork of wood struts.

Barabbas’s demerits are typical to international productions shot on Italian soil at the time. There is inconsistent ESL from the principals (Gassman is very good; Silvana Mangano, De Laurentiis’s wife who plays Barabbas’s converted ex-lover, is not), and badly integrated, clamorous overdubbing from the secondary players. Close your eyes and some of the barked dialogue could come from a Spaghetti Western from a few years later. (“You got a man here who can hang him with his own guts. He came out of that prison mad. Acquitted, but mad.”) Open them and you’ll see cobra-faced Jack Palance, later a regular of those same Spaghetti Westerns, as a giggling sociopathic gladiator who three times has been granted freedom by the Emperor, and three times has returned to kill more.

It’s the contention of Barabbas that the pre-Christian era was a period of sustained, universal bloodlust, while the movie has fallen victims to our prejudices about its own era. Just as music docs addressing the pre-punk scene must get in an obligatory crack at early Seventies prog bloat—usually a talking head saying something about “endless” guitar solos and a cut to footage of a drummer with a 200-piece kit—so American movies before New Hollywood must necessarily be creaky, antiquated spectacles: The Sound of Music and Cleopatra and, yes, Doctor Doolittle. As ever, the truth of matters is more complicated than that. Barabbas, which has all the hallmarks of a decadent costume pageant of the Hollywood-on-the-Tiber, runaway-production, Two Weeks in Another Town era, is upon closer examination an inextricable mixture of reactionary and radical elements. The latter include the unorthodox approach to religious subject matter, Nascimbene’s experimental score, and the focus on a coarse, “unlikable protagonist”—a type so much esteemed today—who remains unreconstructed for practically the entire movie. (Here Fellini’s La Strada, in which Quinn also starred, is a helpful analogue.) Like Fleischer’s oeuvre as a whole, it’s ripe for reconsideration—the Greatest Story Ever Told has been Retold and Retold, but Barabbas brings it back from the dead.