Masada - 1981
Masada - 1981 - Peter O'Toole is General Cornelius Flavius Silva, leader of the Roman army that must take control of a desert-bound mountain-top fortress called Masada where a group of Jewish Zealots, holdovers from the earlier conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans, are making a last stand. These Jewish warriors believe their fortress is impregnable, and for the most part the Romans agree with them, but then Silva's engineering genius Rubrius Gallus (Anthony Quayle) comes up with a brilliant and audacious plan to hoist a siege tower up a huge earthen ramp to breach the walls of the fortress.
Masada is a 394 minute TV mini series (there was a 120 minute cinema cut) that is hampered by the limitations and cloistered melodramatics of TV drama and the quasi-history lesson of the past that pushes into the narrative, but Peter O'Toole (along with Quayle) boost the drama into a higher quality whenever they're on screen.
The miserable conditions of the Roman troops on the desert floor where lack of water and ongoing mutinous feeling runs rampant is contrasted with the Zealots high above on the mountain top where they enjoy a large food larder and a nearly limitless supply of liquid, plus a feeling of inevitable triumph. Part of the film is dedicated to this contrast and to the vastly outnumbered Jews using psychological weapons and night-time raids led by their courageous but bitter commander Eleazar ben Yair (Peter Strauss) to try and break the Roman determination. Getting the Romans to want to quit doesn't seem hard to do since none of them want to be where they are under the brutal sun by day and the cold by night. Meanwhile, their leader Silva is trying his hardest to arrange a peace treaty between the Zealots and his boss, Emperor Vespasian (Timothy West) back in Rome.
Part of this effort is because Silva looks at the whole endeavor of conquering Masada and its handful of defenders as militarily pointless, but he also wants to impress his reluctant Jewish girlfriend/slave Sheva (Barbara Carrera) who has started to identify with the distant Jewish rebels, and to prove to her that he isn't the villain in this situation but a man of peace and a desire mutual understanding. Silva is set on the goal of getting his powerless slave Sheva to voluntarily return home with him as his wife and retire to his luxury estate in Rome, but the situation in front of them is making that look more and more impossible.
Partisan politics far away in Rome soon distorts and then overturns Silva's efforts to find peace, and then Falco (David Warner) is soon in their midst, a special envoy from Vaspasian who brings a witty and sarcastic series of one liners, but also a sinister secret purpose to ensure Rome will be pleased with the end result out in the Judean desert. The Zealots sense of eventual victory begins to disintegrate as the huge earthen ramp (being built by Jewish slaves under the lash of Roman slave masters) gets closer, day by day. They then decide on a countermove that the Romans do not see coming.
Based on the historical novel The Antagonists by Ernest K. Gann. Richard Basehart supplies the authorative narrative voice that pops into the proceedings at regular points.
Original Page Dec 2018
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Movemaking
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