Barabbas picks up the story of early Christianity right about where Ben-Hur leaves it. Both Jesus and a thief named Barabbas (Anthony Quinn) are slated to be executed by crucifixion; by popular acclaim, one of them is set free. Barabbas, the freed man, finds himself haunted by guilt over having had another man die in his place, especially when he discovers that many of the people around him, including a former lover, have become followers of the new faith of Christianity. As years pass, and after surviving various arrests and incarcerations, slave labor, and fighting as a gladiator, Barabbas himself becomes tormented both by guilt and by the idea that he cannot die.
In the possibly-deathless figure of Barabbas, there's the gem of an interesting story. For one thing, Barabbas experiences a number of interesting situations during his life as a robber, a slave, and finally a gladiator, any of which could be prime material for an adventure story in the vein of Ben-Hur. There's also the potential for interesting character development: Barabbas is constantly caught between his own natural skepticism and the superstition of those around him. Although the people around him are eager to leap to supernatural conclusions about his longevity, Barabbas' continued life has much more to do with his intelligent, canny behavior than any unnatural force. Unfortunately, the film doesn't adequately explore either of these possibilities.
What Barabbas ends up as is little more than an episodic sequence of pro-Christian messages. Two similarly themed films, Ben-Hur (even subtitled "A Tale of the Christ") and The Ten Commandments, manage to incorporate a religious message in a way that's not heavy-handed, because in both of those films, there's a strong, entertaining storyline as the backbone of the film. In Barabbas, the storyline is the message and the message is the storyline, which significantly weakens its overall quality as a film.
Even with this weakness, the film could have redeemed itself with a strong focus on characterization instead of plot, but in fact characterization is one of the weaker elements of this film. Barabbas meets many people over the course of the story, but apart from Barabbas himself, all the characters seem like cardboard cut-outs who make speeches. The character of Barabbas seems untouched by these people and their messages, which makes the ending of the film highly implausible, when Barabbas is moved to action and a change of heart after seeing a Christian friend die.
The best part of the film is a segment that falls into the sub-genre of "gladiator school episodes in film." The representation of a Roman coliseum in action, with various "acts" going on simultaneously, is the most accurate historical representation that I've seen in film of this kind of event, even more so than in Spartacus or Gladiator. The scenes dealing with Barabbas' training as a gladiator, as well as the actual fights, are also very well done and entertaining; it's a pity that the rest of the movie doesn't match them.
Barabbas looks to have been done with a very muted color palette, featuring many browns and grays, especially at the beginning of the movie. As the film progresses, and the action moves to Rome, we do see more splashes of color, though it's never bright.
There's a fair amount of both noise and edge enhancement in the image; the general blurriness of the picture hides the edge enhancement in many of the scenes, but it's obvious in others, as in one scene with a cross which shows a clear horizontal halo around the edges.
All in all, Barabbas isn't bad-looking for an older movie, though it's not as clean as better-restored films of the period.
The soundtrack for Barabbas is a strong Dolby 4.0 which offers a respectable, clear audio experience. The surround channels have been used to give a reasonable sense of immersion in the environment of the film, as is evident in sequences such as the mine collapse.
The only special feature included on this disc is a trailer for the film.
Barabbas squeaks from the "skip it" into the "rent it" category on the virtue of it having a few entertaining "adventure"-type episodes, and because I'm a sucker for movies set in ancient Rome in any case. It's admittedly one of the lesser historical films that I've seen, but it's probably worth watching once if you find the subject appealing.