It used to be a network TV miniseries was a big deal. All the production value of a season-long show compressed into a few super-sized episodes. Kind of like what we have on cable now.
Back in the early 1980s, ABC had the clout to attract big name actors like Peter O’Toole, Peter Strauss, and David Warner, as well as film composer Jerry Goldsmith to a four episode, six-hour series called Masada. In the mode of sword and sandal epics, it employs a cast of hundreds, plus animals, expansive sets, and gigantic Roman siege engines.
The story resembles the Alamo in ancient Palestine. In the early years of the Common Era (CE), Judea was a province of the Roman Empire. From 66-73 CE, the Jews revolted against Roman rule. It didn’t go well- Jerusalem was sacked, the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Empire’s control remained.
Masada picks up at the end of the Revolt. The region has been pacified, and the Tenth Legion, commanded by Lucius Flavius Silva (Peter O’Toole) is finally preparing to go home. But a band of Jewish hold-outs tries to keep the fight going. They’re led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir (Peter Strauss), a Zealot, who wants independence from Rome. Silva’s one last mission is to lay siege to their stronghold, a fortress on top of a cliff called Masada.
There’s a lot to recommend here. O’Toole is great- he says more with a tilt of his heads than most actors say with a long soliloquy. Scenes where Silva and Eleazar can play off each other are also nice- neither one is a villain, but their attempts to resolve things peacefully are doomed to failure.
Anthony Quayle is Rubrius Gallus, a Roman engineer tasked with getting Roman troops up the side of the cliff. Incidentally, it’s not the first time he and O’Toole have had an adventure together in the desert.
The music is incredible. The easiest excerpt to find is a rousing march that’s been re-recorded several times. Personally, I think Goldsmith won his Emmy in the first ten minutes of Part II, during the title sequence, as the Romans march to the fortress: The plucky, melodic theme for the Jews is contrasted by the brassy, percussive fanfare of the Romans. It was also cool to hear the Roman’s theme repeated in the fanfares played by characters within the story.
There are the usual issues of dramatizing a historical event. This one, in particular, has very few sources to draw from, so there are gaps that need to be filled in. A history lesson this is not.
The pacing is slow, especially by today’s standards. The siege itself doesn’t get started until the second episode. It’s six hours long, for crying out loud. David Warner’s treacherous Pomponious Falco is played as a thinly-veiled villainous homosexual– he promoted his masseuse to be his secretary and later catapults Jewish slaves into the cliff face. He might as well have a limp wrist and listen to show tunes. I doubt this would fly today.
Silva is by far the most interesting character in the whole bit. He even has an affair with a Jewish woman, Sheva (Barbara Carrera), who has fled lecherous legionnaires. Driven by his devotion to Rome, he is forced to choose the least bad option for the good of the Empire. Naturally, we spend the most time with him.
But this means Eleazar and his fellow Jews don’t have much to do until the end of the story.
And that ending is really frakking uncomfortable: rather than be captured or killed by the Romans when they storm the gate, they commit mass suicide instead.
There are a lot of problems with this- but they’ll have to wait until next week.
-  who won an Emmy ↩
-  also won an Emmy for Episode II ↩
-  Previously subsumed by the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, among others ↩
-  The end of The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus begs to be put back on the cross (sorry, spoilers), crawling among chaos and burning buildings, takes place here. ↩
-  That would be Lawrence of Arabia. ↩
-  We’d call this source music, or diegetic music. ↩
-  Especially in Part III. ↩