Masada (1981)

Masada was a 392 minute four part historical miniseries that aired on ABC back in 1981. Directed by Boris Segal (who also directed episodes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Colombo), Masada is a fictionalized account of the Roman siege of the Jewish fortress of Masada by the 10th Legion in 73 AD. The film stars Peter O'Toole as the Roman General Flavius Silva and Peter Strauss as Eleazer ben Yair, head of the Zealots who are defending the fortress. The film follows events from the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD through the grueling Roman siege to the final capture of the fortress and the suicide of its 900 defenders.

The film is not at all bad. One tires of the scenery rather quickly - the 392 minutes take place almost exclusively in the Judean desert, similar to the problem with Lawrence of Arabia, another O'Toole film. And despite the fact that this is a military movie that is over four hours long, don't look for a lot of action. Most of the film is about a siege, not a battle, and while we see a lot of soldiers digging, carrying crap around, complaining about their duty, we don't see much fighting. When they finally get into Masada, all of the Jewish defenders have already killed themselves, so no fighting there either. So, a military film where the scenery never changes and where there is no fighting needs to make it up by intense character development and dialogue. It is here that Masada has its greatest successes.

I believe that we are supposed to sympathize with the Jews in this film. After all, their Temple was destroyed, their nation overrun, and the Romans are clearly the aggressors. Yet the film almost makes the Romans under Flavius Silva to be the protagonists, and throughout the film the audience feels much more sympathy towards Silva than Eleazar. Perhaps both Silva and Eleazar are protagonists and the true antagonists are the horrendous events in a war that both find themselves caught up in and both despise? War and politics is bigger than any one individual, and sometimes fate has it that individuals who are both generally in agreement in principle wind up on opposing sides.

The bigger theme of the series is ultimately the question of why we must fight. Why is war a necessity? Is there ever a good reason for war? The film takes the viewer through the intricacies of these questions without really positing an answer; its purpose is to simply get us to think and break us out of the good guy vs. bad guy, us vs. them mold than the world was stuck in throughout the Cold War and is still stuck in now. The director, Boris Segal, was himself a native of communist Ukraine but made his career in the west, so he must have experienced this question very intimately.

The vitality of the film is weakened by a useless female lead, a Jewish slave woman who becomes a concubine of O'Toole. Perhaps she is supposed to represent the plight of Israel; a Jewish woman as the concubine of a Roman general, torn between her own culture and the seductive culture of Rome symbolizing the dilemma of the Jews. Even so, she really is a distraction from the main plot, a useless romantic aside, and there are a few shots of her and Silva semi-nude in bed together, which was unfortunate.

The greatest strength about this movie is the acting of Peter O'Toole convincing character. We are drawn into his complex love-hate relationship with the Roman military, his cynical approach to politics and religion, the conspiracies of the Roman government during the early Flavian years, all through the mediation of O'Toole's lines, facial expressions and bodily gestures. We feel Silva's weariness, sympathize with his dilemmas and applaud him when he is able to rise above his cynicism and really fight for something. Even so, O'Toole, though a convincing Roman, is not a convincing Roman general. His lanky body and rambling walk do not suggest a man hardened by years of campaigns in the Judean desert. A physical limitation of the actor, perhaps, but it is hard to take O'Toole seriously as an intimidating Roman general when he looks like a shambling, skin-and-bones old man. Yet his lines are delivered impeccably, as is always the case with O'Toole during his hey-day. At the end of the film, after a subordinate congratulates him on his victory over the Jews, O'Toole cynically responds, "Victory? We've won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shores of a poisoned sea."

Strauss as Eleazar ben Yair is terribly unconvincing. We get no sense that the man even believes in God at all, and indeed throughout the film the directors toy with the idea of Eleazar's possible atheism. Everything about Strauss' role is terrible, from the stiff manner in which he delivers his lines to the silly costume they have him wearing. He comes across as a cold Charlton Heston imitator without Heston's range, and that is not saying much. This is why by Part 4 we are rooting for the Romans.

The film was enjoyable, but long. Great acting from O'Toole, despite his unconvincing physical presence. I would say the acting and dialogue on O'Toole's part and of a host of secondary characters compensated for the monotony of the scenery. The fact that there was little fighting in what was billed as a war movie was disappointing, but in the end the film is not about battle itself, but on the question of why we must fight. Both Silva and Eleazar want peace. Both want to go home. Both want to avoid more bloodshed. And yet they fight to the bitter end because they are caught up in something bigger than themselves. And for what? So the Romans can win "a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shores of a poisoned sea." The annoying female character was stupid, and the few scenes of her half-naked were regrettable. Still, I think you'll find it enjoyable if you like the epic historical dramas of the 60's and 70's. I give it 2.5 tiaras.


Review by Boniface