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
Release theatrically in an abridged version in the United Kingdom under the name The Antagonists. See more »
When Eleazar and his party descend down the mountain during their nighttime mission, notice their feet. All of them appear to be wearing 20th century sneakers. See more »
Eleazar ben Yair:
You say you will catch us, and kill us? I invite you to try.
Cornelius Flavius Silva:
You invite me to try? Your country is one long and narrow graveyard already; your cities are flatter than your deserts, your temple has been destroyed and most of the survivors are slaves, all for seven years of our 'trying'. Give us our due, man, we know how to kill.
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Masada is an average epic that has been treated generously. It's not horrible, but it could have been better. A good review must look at, aside from the basics, the film's themes, symbolism, and the quality of the plot. The film is inaccurate, but why? What is the film's message? And does the film's message and inaccuracy make it worth buying, renting, or ignoring? But first, the basics.
The plot is simple: good guys versus bad guys. No clever twists, except in the end perhaps, and nothing original for its time. The setting is the Jewish Revolt of 66-74 AD. The Romans have just captured Jerusalem, but a handful of zealous freedom fighters escape to the fortress Masada. It is a spectacle in the mold of Spartacus and Ben-Hur, one of the last films of that style. The plot unfolds well but is not engaging or intellectual. Romance is included in the film between the Roman general Silva (O' Toole) and a Jewish whore. It was unnecessary.
The acting is mixed. Americans were cast to play the underdogs, the Jews, and Englishmen were cast to play the Romans. As a result talent was concentrated on the Roman side which made for uneven cinema. Peter Strauss who played the Jewish leader is an exception, but the rest were nonentities. On the Roman side there were veteran British actors of tremendous quality such as Peter O'Toole (who occasionally overacts), Anthony Quayle, and David Warner. O'Toole is a real actor. He has actually gotten on stage and performed Shakespeare. In other words the bad guys are not cardboard stands, unlike Star Wars for example. However, the film is heavily biased in favor of the Jews. The film is poor history, but good propaganda. Becket and Lawrence of Arabia were epics that had good history but were still enjoyable. Masada is nowhere near their caliber. Issues have been raised about the mediocre costume and armor of the characters. In my opinion this is a non-issue, there are far more important problems with the film, and that is coming from a Roman military historian. If the film had a better script it would have been a better film regardless of what armor the Roman legionaries wore.
Masada and the film's message should be placed into context. The Jews had religious freedom in the Empire, and this is indicated in several passages of Josephus, a Jewish historian (14.228, 1.194, 14.213-16, 14.225-7, 16.162-5). Roman procurators in Judaea also attempted to accommodate Jewish custom, especially towards Jerusalem and the Temple. What the Romans would not give was political freedom. But that status was true for all of Rome's subjects, and only some Jews actively sought independence. I say "some Jews" because the desire for violent resistance against Rome was not universal. There were, however, a number of self-proclaimed messiahs that were stirring up the masses.
The film's message is that it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. The Jews bravely (or foolhardily) attempted to throw off Roman yoke and suffered horribly as a result. A better philosophy is to live on your feet than to die on your knees, as the rest of Rome's subjects did. The film does not discuss this complicated dilemma, as I said it is anything but original. The Jews did not stand a chance. Whatever one thinks of the Romans they produced a superb fighting machine. Opposition against it was largely futile, or extremely costly, as the Germans learned earlier in the century.
The film is neither creative nor enlightening. The goal of propaganda is not to be truthful. The film is Israeli propaganda. The cast and production were American and British, Israel is America's most important ally in the Middle East, and the film had complete support from the Israeli government. At the beginning and end of the film it shows Israeli soldiers climbing Masada, raising Israel's flag, and claiming Masada will never fall again. Did the Romans only represent Romans? Of course not, just as Jurassic Park was a not movie about dinosaurs. The Jews faced a vastly superior force in the 66-74 revolt against Rome. This was also true for the Israeli Defense Force in 1948-9 against the coalition of Arab states. It is symbolism, but unimaginative. It is highly melodramatic. Silva is also overly sympathetic to the Jewish cause, and there is no evidence that he an Eleazar had any sort of contact.
The film is historically inaccurate, about 3/4s of it. This is also not surprising. It was based off a fictional novel and not the ancient authorities. It perpetuates the national myth that Masada was garrisoned by the Zealots. It was not, it was garrisoned by Sicarii. The Sicarii were terrorists, or freedom-fighters, depending on your perspective. They murdered 700 women and children at Engaddi (4.7.1). They actively murdered and plundered the property of Jews that accepted Roman rule (7.8.1). These tactics are used by the modern terrorist groups of Hamas, PLO and others against the Israelis. The same is true for insurgents against the U.S. occupation in Iraq. So are these people freedom-fighters and heroes as well? Another interesting dilemma that the film could have explored but did not, for obvious reasons. If you asked the Palestinians, who are held in an economic stranglehold by Israel, the new Romans are ironically the Israelis. The Sicarii most resemble the Kach party in modern Israel, the criminal, antidemocratic, racist party that wants all Arabs expelled from Israel.
The film was released in 1981, the same year Israeli aircraft destroyed a multi-story apartment block that contained PLO. The attack killed around 300 civilians and resulted in worldwide condemnation and U.S. embargo on aircraft to Israel. Thus governments can also be terrorist groups. To return to Masada, I own the film because I enjoy watching the Roman army in action. That is the only reason why I own it.
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