Masada - The Complete Epic Mini-Series
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In first century A.D., Flavius Silva (Peter OToole), commander in Roman Palestine, leads his forces in combat against the remaining Jewish Zealots who have taken refuge in the seemingly impregnable fortress of Masada. There, the engineering and military might of Rome faces the passion and ingenuity of Eleazar Ben Yair (Peter Strauss) and his people. Based on the novel "The Antagonists" by Ernest K. Gann, this epic, 4-part mini-series was shot on location in Israel.
"A victory? What have we won?" laments a breathtaking Peter O'Toole as the Roman warrior Flavius Silva. "We've won a rock in the middle of a wasteland, on the shores of a poisoned sea." Thus does Masada, the epic 1981 miniseries about a horrific battle in ancient Palestine, echo the terrible toll of war in general, and of the brutal conflicts in today's Middle East in particular. Masada, from the golden age of miniseries (Roots, Shogun), is a transportive viewing event--shot on location, and apparently no expense spared.
The film retells (with some dramatic license) the true story of an uprising in Palestine of a ragtag band of Jews, in a fortress called Masada, who refuse to surrender to the governing Romans. O'Toole, as Flavius Silva, is the brilliant commander who, over the course of several years of trying, and failing, to breach Masada, comes to regard the leader of his foes, Eleazar ben Yair (the charismatic Peter Strauss), with a certain amount of respect and awe. If left to Flavius, he might have simply leave the holdout fortress and return to the Italy he so longs for; but the Roman emperor demands victory--at any cost.
The performances are uniformly crisp and believable; the direction by Boris Sagal, economical; the screenplay, sharp and incisive. David Warner, who won an Emmy for his performance, plays the brutal Roman henchman Falco with seething determination. The location shooting is nothing short of spectacular. There is sorrow in the story of Masada, but an uplifting message in the ability of true believers to create their own destiny. --A.T. Hurley
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Top customer reviews
An overall strength of this video is that it's the only major film portrayal of a little-known historical event: In the early AD 70s, Jewish zealots rose up in rebellion after Roman troops destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70, leading to a protracted siege at the breathtaking mountaintop fortress of Masada that eventually destroyed the last vestiges of Jewish opposition to Roman occupation. It's pretty neat to see Hollywood tackle a 1st century story of Jews and Romans in the years after the life of Jesus Christ, contextualizing the gospels more clearly. The film's early image of the Temple on fire as Romans crush the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem is especially iconic, showing us something Christ had predicted, a key event in Jewish history (Judaism has been rabbinic rather than priestly ever since) that is rarely dramatized on film. The unconventional opening montage of the modern Israeli army mustering out at Masada -- a major tourist site for Israel -- in tribute to the Jewish martyrs there is rousing with its visuals of the ruins and Jerry Goldsmith's Emmy-winning orchestral theme. The depiction of Roman politics and Jewish hopes of a messiah to defeat the Romans are both spot on. The cast is pretty incredible with the late Peter O'Toole particularly strong as the charismatic Roman general, David Warner at his best in his Emmy-winning role as a power hungry Roman politician, and several others making a strong impression. Supporting players include familiar faces like Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carerra before her James Bond gig in "Never Say Never Again," Anthony Quayle, Denis Quilley, Vernon Dobtcheff, Warren Clarke, and Joseph Wiseman nearly 20 years after his turn as "Dr. No."
On the other hand, the movie takes an interminable amount of time to get to the spectacular battle scenes, going through endless military camp and Roman court scenes as it gradually gives us the meat of the story. Many of these scenes are more episodic than narrative-driven, failing to move the story forward in any noticeable way, and there's no overall sweep to the screenplay. Much of the character material feels designed to pad the miniseries out to four 90-minute episodes, maximizing TV ratings rather than telling a story in the most efficient way possible. The film tends to spend more time talking about things than showing them, but things improve as the conflict between Romans and Jews gradually builds in cat-and-mouse battles to a climactic showdown.
Another flaw is the lead Jewish character. Peter Strauss is a veteran of more miniseries roles (including the excellent "Joan of Arc" opposite Leelee Sobieski in 1999) than almost anyone in Hollywood, but he fails to find much depth in his lead role here as the Jewish leader Eleazar ben Yair. Despite a few moments of burning intensity and heroic defiance, he generally comes across here as a one-note religious zealot, failing to find any nuance in his scenes with the legendary Peter O'Toole. Watching them together, one senses that Strauss is doing a Charlton Heston impression here more than acting, and his limitations come across strongly opposite the brilliant O'Toole whose performance as the Roman general shines with lively energy. O'Toole is relaxed and having fun, but Strauss gives a merely adequate performance, struggling to find the right emotions in each scene. I like Strauss in the right role, but he's being asked to do too much in this one, and it's a bit painful to watch. To compensate, the screenplay gives Strauss anachronistic religious doubts, portraying him as a self-reliant agnostic in the contemporary American mold who is more interested in blood feuds than God. But this approach backfires because it detracts from the Strauss character's credibility and realism, rendering an already-bland character even blander.
That brings me to the film's deeper flaw, which is specifically its failed attempt to present both the Roman and Jewish sides fairly. With O'Toole and Warner representing the Roman side, the Jews under Strauss's growling visage don't stand a chance in the battle for audience sympathy, and I'm afraid the oppressive Romans come across more relatable than the Jews due to the likability of these actors. Quite frankly, this material would have worked better as a rousing underdog story of the Jewish fight for independence anyway, rather than as a two-sided war story that revels in depicting the efficient Roman war machine. But the fact that the occupying Roman generals have more compelling stories than the Jewish rebels, who spend long stretches of the film off-camera while we learn of Roman machinations and strategy, really weighs the film down. O'Toole is just too darn likable for us to sympathize deeply with the Jews here, or even to feel compelled to choose between them, thus robbing the film of any real dramatic tension. Invited to view the Jewish rebels as one-dimensional zealots rather than deeply religious people with a legitimate grievance against Rome, we end up with a handsome historical spectacle that features appealing battle scenes, but little insight into the Jewish or Roman instigators of these great events. With the story effectively told from the Roman perspective, it also tells us little about the impact of Israel's failed revolt on Jewish culture and religion today. While "Masada" is worth seeing, it won't stay with you very long afterwards, and it won't impress you as the best of its genre or sub-genre.
Postscript: This film of "Masada" is significantly better than the "Dovekeepers" miniseries that aired on the same story in April 2015. Whereas the "Dovekeepers" emphasizes three female perspectives on Masada, being based on a historical novel, it plods along with fictional romances and offers very little substantial account of the history. This earlier version, by contrast, benefits from remarkably authentic production values and superior acting. It also gives you a better sense of the political and historical events.
As with most siege epics, the action is limited to the beginning and the end, with much of the interim filled in with intrigue and character development while we wait for the big battle that in this case, famously, never actually happens. Not altogether surprisingly it spends more screen time with the Romans than with the zealots - even if the zealots' strategy was more than simply watching and waiting while sporadically taunting their would-be conquerors, with their penchant for spectacle and infighting, the Romans are always better dramatic value in these sorts of epics. Certainly Peter O'Toole effortlessly dominates the series as the humane Roman commander forced by the political situation back in Rome to fight the rebels rather than negotiate with them only to find himself facing mutiny, senatorial spies and other political animals as well as heat, windstorms and not enough water before his legions can even start to virtually move mountains to reach the clifftop fortress of Masada. By contrast, then-reigning king of the miniseries Peter Strauss has less to work with as his character spends much of the series waiting and trying to raise morale with only a few half-hearted attempts at soul-searching along the way, only really coming into his own in the still powerful final scenes.
The supporting cast is impressive, with a line-up of familiar Brits including David Warner, Anthony Quayle, Timothy West, Dennis Quilley, Anthony Valentine and Nigel Davenport making up the officers, emperors and senators while the likes of Jack Watson, Norman Rossington, Warren Clarke, Michael Elphick and Nick Brimble swell the Roman ranks. The Judeans have to make do with Barbara Carrera, Joseph Wiseman, David Opatoshu and Paul L. Smith. For the most part they're blessed with exceptionally good dialogue with few lapses (though Anthony Valentine's "I'm a tribune, darling" is an unwelcome moment of unintended camp) thanks to Joel Oliansky's surprisingly intelligent and often witty screenplay, which boasts a good understanding of the politics of the day on both sides and an ability to offer memorable character moments for even the bit players - siege engineer's Quayle's briefing on the practicalities of how to get the most out of slave labor is a perfect example of how to juggle exposition and background research without it seeming like a history lecture.
Visually it's often impressive too, although at times Boris Sagal's direction is caught between location naturalism and old-school studio work. The destruction of Jerusalem has something of the look of a late De Mille epic to it, with Albert Whitlock's old school columns of fire matte paintings having an almost storybook stylisation that wouldn't look out of place in The Ten Commandments but despite some obvious studio interior-`exteriors' in a few scenes, it's a genuinely spectacular production from a time when the big-screen epic had long fallen from favor. There's also an extraordinarily good score from Jerry Goldsmith (with additional music by Morton Stevens based on his themes) at the peak of his powers even if his great elegiac finale cue was never used. Still pretty impressive stuff.