Flavius Silva, commander in Roman Judea, 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. Written by
"We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea."
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.
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