Screen Pilates: Arthur Kennedy

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Continuing our series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began in 2011 during Holy Week.    The posts on portrayals of Pilate by Rod Steiger, Richard Boone, Barry Dennen, Hristov Shopov, Telly Savalas, Frank Thring, Stephen Russell, Greg Hicks, Cyril Richard, Stephen Moyer, Dennis King, Keith Mitchell, Leif Erickson, Peter Firth, David Bowie, Lowell Gilmore,  Hurd Hatfield and Vincent Regan, may be viewed  here, here, here, here  here , here, here, here, here , here , here, here, here , here , here , here , here and here.

The film Barabbas (1961) starring Anthony Quinn, focuses on the murderer, (Zealot?) Barabbas who was freed by Pilate instead of Christ.  As I was sure was the case with the historical Barabbas, he commits new offenses and finds himself again before Pilate portrayed by Arthur Kennedy.  Largely forgotten today, Kennedy who passed away in 1990 was a notable actor of the forties, fifties and sixties, and was considered one of the best supporting actors of his day.  He plays Pilate as something of an intellectual as he engages Barabbas in an impromptu debate as to whether states are merely bandits like Barabbas writ large.  This debate echoes this passage in book IV of the City of God by Saint Augustine:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Pilate wins the debate in the film by noting that the law prevents him from ordering the execution of Barabbas since he was freed at the Passover Festival and is thus spared the death penalty, although Pilate views the death penalty as preferable to the sentence that he will impose upon Barabbas of being sentenced to the mines.  Barabbas then talks about how Christ died for him and took away the debt that Barabbas owed.

The entire film is quite interesting including Jack Palance in one of his best evil roles, and anyone who hasn’t seen it should remedy that lack as soon as possible.

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  1. Trivia note: the eclipsed sun in the crucifixion scene is NOT a special effect. The scene was shot during an actual total solar eclipse in Italy on Feb. 15, 1961.

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