Judge Daryl Loomis ponders the days when mini-series brought maxi-tedium to viewers.
Get ready for a long and boring, but epic, ride…
Oh, the days of the TV mini-series, when B-level stars and second-rate directors would get together to produce long, overwrought tales of historical "significance." Along with the Movie of the Week and "A Very Special Episode of [insert sitcom here]" (I prefer the episode of Alf where Alf learns that it's not okay to go camping alone with Willie), the mini-series is a relic of television likely never to return. A few gems like Roots and Lonesome Dove lent credence to the genre, but most were epic failures at telling epic stories. This is Masada: one part Jewish history, one part Roman epic, and four parts ridiculous storytelling.
Facts of the Case
Palestine, 1st Century A.D.: the Romans have succeeded in the destruction of the second Jewish temple and the Hebrews have been killed, enslaved, or driven from their homeland. A small band of zealots, led by Eleazar ben Yair (Peter Strauss, Rich Man, Poor Man), have escaped to Masada, a great fortress atop a mountain on the salty shore of the Dead Sea. From there, they use guerrilla tactics to confound and anger Caesar's occupying forces, looting granaries and killing soldiers where they can. To squelch this pesky little rebellion, the entire Roman Tenth Legion, led by Commander Flavius Silva (Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia) converges on the fortress. They ask the Jews very nicely to come down, and are even so kind as to promise not to kill them when they do, but the rebels somehow don't believe the Romans and refuse to leave. When diplomacy fails, force is all that's left, and Silva comes up with a master scheme: he'll enslave the peaceful Jews below and force them to build an attack ramp up to the walls of the fortress. Once completed, the Romans will drag a massive tower to the gates, breach the walls, and overtake the rebels. Unfortunately for them, the zealots won't go down so easily. They take the Tenth Legion to its limits, and make the ultimate sacrifice to retain their freedom.
I haven't read Earnest K. Gann's The Antagonists, the novel on which Masada was based, but I hope it doesn't play out like this overlong, badly drawn trash heap of a movie. That this four-part epic received thirteen Emmy nominations makes me think that television in 1981 must have been as big a wasteland as the Judean desert. Masada contains all the elements that one might expect from an epic story, but fails on all levels (aside from the location, which is the only authentic thing about it). Battles, romance, and political intrigue are all present, but inserted in such a shallow fashion that it is impossible to take seriously. After more than six hours of viewing, I expect some kind of reward for my patience. Instead, I get slapped in the face.
For this kind of time commitment, acting must come first but it's the performances here that come off the most ridiculous. The worst offender is also the film's biggest name. Peter O'Toole, for all the accolades he's received in his career (some, admittedly, deserved), has spent the last four decades prostrating and yelling at the camera to the world's applause, giving the same performance in everything from Caligula to Rock My World, and he's at his worst here. In fairness, the writer does not give him very compelling dialogue, but his delivery is as intolerable. His attempts at sensitivity are laughable and dishonest to the character while his scenes in command of the army are heavy handed and wooden. Awful as this performance comes off, he's certainly not the only one. Barbara Carrera (Never Say Never Again), who plays Silva's Jewish slave, seems unable to read the lines given to her and she mumbles them out with no attempt at emotion. Depending on the scene, she is either his confidant or his concubine with no consistency between scenes. When she is first handed to Silva, her assumption is that she is there for his pleasure but, as soon as she loses her dress, Silva screams at her that she isn't there for such purposes. An interesting development, but their next scene together begins with them awakening from a night of passion. This kind of confusing character change occurs constantly throughout the production, and none are ever explained. Most of the other performances are not as poor as these, but they are universally as bland and predictable as the script.
Though the acting takes a lot of the blame, the story itself does not help. Aside from problems with historical accuracy and believability, which I won't quibble about, there is no real villain in the film to root against and to help us root for the heroic rebels. For no good reason, Silva spends so much of his time fighting for the rights of the Jews that he becomes some sort of hero when, in reality, he's preparing to enslave and murder scores of them. I tried to justify this as manipulation to make the rebels come quietly and reduce the bloodshed, but when his asides became declarations of his undying respect and love for the people, all of that justification went right out the window. The villain becomes the Roman state but, given that Silva is the commander of the largest legion of troops in the empire, any claim to humanitarianism falls flat. The motives of the characters make no sense, though most of the characters are given no motivation at all.
The worst part is the veiled anti-Semitism in the story and dialogue. Never mind the unnecessary and offensive caricatures of Jews in the brief scene in Rome; never mind lines of dialogue like "You look very handsome when you haggle prices." The premise that Silva tries his best for a peaceful resolution represents our heroes as a band of uncivilized, unreasonable fanatics who must be saved by a benevolent Rome. This is patently ridiculous and undermines everything that the story represents. The filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves.
They aren't the only ones who should be ashamed, though. Koch Video's two-disc release of Masada is barely adequate in audio and video presentation. The full-frame picture is clear enough, though it is apparent that they did no restoration, and it shows plenty of grain and dirt. Also of note, there are small pieces missing from the fourth and final part. It's just a few lines here and there, nothing too detrimental, and it seems that these pieces were either too badly damaged or lost entirely. The mono sound is fine; the dialogue is perfectly clear, which I'm not sure is a blessing. There are no extras on either disc. The real problem with the disc is not just a lack of subtitles, but a lack of even closed captioning. This, in particular, hits home. There are two people in this world who I could recommend Masada to in good conscience. Both are Jewish, and both would love something like this. Unfortunately, both are also deaf. This release, much as they may want to watch it, is completely worthless to them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have only two good things to say about Masada. The mini-series was filmed on location at and around the Masada fortress in Israel, and the vistas are impressive. Having it play out at the historical site gives a level of immersion that green screens and backdrops just can't deliver. Also, the special effects are bad, but in the Roger Corman campy sort of way. Especially after about six hours, when the final battle kicks in, it gives a small wave of amusement in this sea of boredom.
In preparation for watching this mini-series, I asked a number of people older than myself if they recall Masada airing. I'm a little too young to remember much from that era aside from Mr. Rogers, so I looked to people ten to twenty years older than myself. Not a single person, not even the longtime TV addicts that I know, remembers it. Now I see why. For all the bad that's in it, the worst thing is how dull and forgettable it actually is.
Guilty, oy Jehovah, so very guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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