Flavius Silva, commander in Roman Palestine, wants to reach a reasonable compromise with the Jewish Zealots and withdraw his legion. Events and personalities in Rome, however, lead to his besieging the fortress of Masada. There the engineering genius of the Romans must fight both the harsh climate and landscape, and the passion and ingenuity of Eleazar Ben Yair and his people.
Peter O'Toole ... General Cornelius Flavius Silva
Peter Strauss ... Eleazar ben Yair
Barbara Carrera ... Sheva
Anthony Quayle ... Rubrius Gallus
David Warner ... Senator Pomponius Falco
Giulia Pagano ... Miriam
Reuven Bar-Yotam ... Joshua (Butcher) (as Reuben Bar Yotam)
Richard Basehart ... Narrator
John Terry Bell ... Israeli Master of Ceremonies
Heinz Bernard ... Elder (as Heinz Bernhard)
Christopher Biggins ... Claudius Albinus, Falco's secretary
David A. Block ... Reuben
Christal Blue ... Fatima
Nick Brimble ... Milades
Warren Clarke ... Plinius (mutineer)
Back in 1981 this epic mini-series about the ill-fated Jewish rebellion against Roman rule pulled in what was then the biggest TV audience of all time, yet it's languished on the shelf forgotten for the past couple of decades. The Region 1 DVD isn't even released by producers Universal and comes with no extras, though it does include the uncut six-hour-plus series, but not the abridged feature film version released outside the US as The Antagonists, which apparently featured some different scenes (the abridged version was not a success: in the UK it had the dubious honour of being the lowest-grossing film of it's year).
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 moral 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 how to get the most out of slave labour 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 favour. There's also an extraordinarily good score from Jerry Goldsmith (with additional music by Morton Gould based on his themes) at the peak of his powers even if his great elegiac finale cue was never used. Still pretty impressive stuff.
Honor is due all around. First, credit must go to Joel Oliansky, who developed Gann's slender book into full-range drama with wit and wisdom. Boris Segal directs a huge cast so well, and so unobtrusively...You never wonder where you are, or which side you're listening to; there are so many characters that are memorable, even if they only have two lines...It's the best performance of Peter Strauss's career, and one of O'Toole's crown jewels. Jerry Goldsmith can furnish haunting melodies and epic marches. In short, nobody in this miniseries has fallen down on the job...
Except for ABC, who took more than a decade to get it out of the vault and onto videotape, and still hasn't gotten "Masada" put on DVD.
The strongest kind of drama is when you can sympathize with both sides; Silva has been saddled with irrational orders for a military conquest (sound familiar?) where none is possible - or even necessary. Eleazar knows only one thing for sure: "No man should be another man's slave." But Rome must prove a point. Rome cannot allow defiance to succeed; the Jewish zealots cannot submit to Roman enslavement. "You can take their victory from them." Mesmerizing...and well worth your time.
The movie is based on the book THE ANTAGONISTS and shows the story of the Jewish defense from the Roman oppressor. The story seems to be quite short and not the main focus of the film. Jews led by Eleazar stay in a huge fortress of Masada on the Judean Desert which is their only safe place away from the Roman Empire. Romans are forced to conquer them.
The movie shows human soul, psychological aspect of humanity, even of the "triumphant Roman leaders". This psychological aspect is revealed in both main characters: the Jewish leader Eleazar, portrayed wonderfully by Peter Strauss (one of his really best roles), and Flavius Silva (great Peter O'Toole), the leader of the 10th legion attempting at finishing the conquest and returning to Rome. Both of them are full of doubts. They change over the movie, develop like all of us do.
Silva doubts the logic of the whole campaign, which is especially emphasized at the end when he says desperately "What victory!? We have won a rock on the shore of the poisoned sea!" A rock that has cost thousands of innocent lives. He is also an honorable man. When Pomponius Falco takes over the leadership and occurs to be brutal, Silva tries his best to prove that this way of dealing with the enemy is "not Rome!" He even meets with Eleazar to justify these deeds.
Eleazar is a good Jew. He cares for his people but there is one thing which makes others confused. He doubts in the existence of God. However, deeply in his heart, there is a place for Him. Peter Strauss stresses this memorably when he goes to pray in order the Romans to stop killing the innocent Jews. In fact, he proves to love his people and that is, most appealingly, a better knowledge of God than any other...
The character that needs mentioning is Sheva (Barbara Carrera). She, in fact, is not very sure if she loves Silva or not. On the one hand, she wants to stay with him. On the other hand, her people seem to be more important. Finally, she decides to leave him. Her love is divided and demands a difficult choice. VERY PSYCHOLOGICAL!
In this comment I concentrated mostly on the psychological aspect. Yes, I admit that it appears to be the most significant factor for me. There are, of course, other factors that make me love this movie: the whole story, the locations, the music, the stars... EVERYTHING! But you will have a chance to appreciate all these aspects when you decide to see MASADA.
Finally, the end is unforgettable: "Take them their victory! Then they will remember..." Truly impressive script! One of the best lessons of life! 10/10 for the whole movie!
The final reference to modern Israel appears to be particularly touching!
* In order to avoid the heat of the Israeli desert, the crew employed a unique shooting schedule: they divided the day into three eight-hour segments and only shot either late at night or early in the morning. They avoided shooting between late morning and late afternoon, the hottest part of the day.