Masada (1981)

No offense to the wars or the soldiers who fought in them, but thank goodness we have a war miniseries that is not about World War II or The Civil War.  “Masada” reaches back 2000 years to tell the story of the Jews fighting against Rome.  The outcome is as inevitable as the Confederates and the Japanese getting pulverized in their respective wars, but “Masada” is an inspirational tale.  Gone are the gooey trappings of modern war miniseries (in other words, the backstories that fill time between battles).  Instead, we return to the sword and sandal epics mid-20th Century Hollywood loved to produce.  This one is all about might versus right.  The Romans have the might and the Jews have the right.  To be fair, “Masada” does have two leading characters who are very flawed in the eyes of their own people.  The Roman General actually starts out lenient and trusting of the rebellious Jews, while the leader of said rebellious Jews can be awfully heavy-handed and pompous.  However, that cannot obscure the rah-rah inevitability of the few hundred Jews trying to overcome thousands of Roman soldiers, which makes this an action/war miniseries like all the rest, just with much smaller costumes.

Serious narration gives us bit of history before the action starts.  A camera comes from deep in the Israeli desert to swoop across the remains of the citadel that was once a live fortress.  In fact, modern Israeli soldiers are still sworn in at Masada, with the claim that they are “the most daring and defiant soldier in the world,” certainly not an untrue statement.  Part of the ceremony is to recall the 960 Israelis who fought to defend the mountain from at least 10,000 Roman soldiers.  A cascading Jerry Goldsmith score, replete with a Jewish influence and the brass of Broadway, follows the soldiers up to the peak.  “A soldier has to wonder…” the narrator says and that’s our cue to turn the clocks back to the year 70 AD.

Jerusalem is being destroyed by the Romans, it’s holy Temple burned and pillaged, it’s people slaughtered (including one woman pinned against a wall to have her arm chopped off in close-up), but some are fighting back.  Peter Strauss certainly is.  As he and his family formulate an escape plan, he and a Roman soldier, both showing a whole lot of leg, fight until Peter overcomes him.  Peter and his gang escape Jerusalem, going up in fake blue-screen flames that would made DeMille proud.  It’s certainly an exciting opening.

Skip ahead three years.  Peter has vowed not to give into the Romans and he’s set up camp atop Masada.  They have gotten good at picking off small bands of Roman soldiers, using clever ruses to intercept money and letters.  The latter reveal that the Roman government is going to tax the hell out of Palestine, but the General who has been in charge of the area is leaving, much to the dismay of his soldiers, who have been lagging in the hot desert for years. 

Said General would be Peter O’Toole, giving over his command to Dennis Quilley.  Peter is at his most regal here, playing miniseries dialogue like it’s Shakespeare, and not one of the comedies.  As he’s dictating a letter, a sad soldier somehow makes it through a legion of soldiers outside his tent door to assassinate him.  He gets him in the leg, but his his men ultimately get him.  Peter gives the troops a rousing speech.  “You stupid bastards.  It’s almost over,” he tells them to shame them, reminding them of their loyalty to the Emperor.  It’s quite a speech, delivered with aplomb, and he wins back the affection of his men by not putting his would-be assassin to death.  “Masada” aired only weeks after the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and was therefore filmed long before, but leaving in this scene had to resonate with people at the time.

Back up on Masada, Peter Strauss decrees that it’s time to go down to Hebron, but not everyone agrees.  The elders in the synagogue think eventually the Romans will go away and don’t agree, but Peter is pretty convincing.  Not only does he have a big noble speech as well, but he also promises death to those who don’t help, always so damn pushy.  The elders wonder why they bother.  “We can remind them that some Jews are free!” he roars dramatically.  He’s obviously a good leader, because General Peter dictates a letter to the Emperor on the eve of his leave to say for sure, “the Judean War is over,” noting that the band of Zealots of “melted into the population and the taxes have been collected for the first time in seven years.  He doesn’t realize Zealot Peter at that very moment is assaulting Hebron, the soldiers caught in a trap and the grain reserves set on fire.  Victory for the Zealots!

This is bad news for General Peter, who orders a cavalry readied so he can ride majestically into Hebron, his face glowing from pounds of eye shadow rather than the sun.  He’s not happy with the soldier in charge, who burned every third house without asking questions, thus having made the problem worth.  “Confess it, you just hated to see all that fire put to waste,” he clucks at the stupid soldier who has learned absolutely nothing from the whole ado.  He yells, the soldiers yells back, hoping to be relieved of duty.  The only man captured in the whole escapade is Richard Pierson, who laughs at the General even tied upside down for a whole evening. 

Richard is allowed to go free so he can report back to Zealot Peter and ask for a meeting between the two leaders (the Peter leaders, if you will).  “These aren’t Britons or Gauls we’re fighting…these are grainy bastards without ethics,” General Peter tells Dennis, with a world weary attitude that leads one to think he’s personally conquered the entire known world.  He’s just jealous and pissy, wise to the fact that Zealot Peter has waited until the dead of night to show up for the meeting, when the soldiers cannot see how many men he’s brought. 

The meeting between the two men is a lesson in acting styles.  Peter Strauss doesn’t really have one and Peter O’Toole invented his own, loud and bombastic, sounding full of grog and ham at all time.  General Peter makes a “statement of fact” that Zealot Peter’s band will be killed, no matter how long it takes.  “I’m sick of dead Jews, live Jews, men, women and children and of your miserable and unyielding country,” General Peter brays, and Zealot Peter tells him to go already!  No, no, General Peter isn’t going anywhere because his pride as an officer of Rome won’t let him leave while bandits still wander.  “Give us our due, man, we know how to kill,” General Peter says, but Zealot Peter replies with, “prune the orchards and the best trees survive.”  Geez, DeMille WOULD be proud: spectacle and atrocious dialogue, just what he always aimed for.  Zealot Peter says rebellions will rise forever and eventually overcome the Romans, an unlikely proposition, to General Peter marks him as “insane.”  “I’m not about to argue about insanity with a man who got his commission from Nero,” Zealot Peter snaps back.  Good point!  The loopy conversation ends with Zealot Peter spewing about how Masada is impenetrable and his people can hold off the Romans forever with “rocks and boiling water.”  He promises that the war will go on as long as his people remember the crushing power of Rome.  Having promised Zealot Peter no harm if he came to talk to him, General Peter of course imprisons him.  Zealot Peter reminds him that he promised on his family name and honor.  “Honor, like patience, has its limits,” General Peter says, getting in the last word of a conversation made up entirely of Biblical-sounding phrases that are really just gussied-up schoolyard bully-speak. 

Unfortunately, the two meet up again only moments later, but Zealot Peter is in a cage and General Peter taunts him from outside.  From inside the cage, Zealot Peter is awfully full of bravado, and General Peter keeps egging him on.  He tells the captured man that pretending to be unafraid of death is a Roman trick and he can “smell it a mile away.”  Zealot Peter only grumbles that the General is making it hard for him to sleep.  At Peter O’Toole’s vocal level, it’s making it hard to sleep as far as Damascus, no doubt.  They take a minute to discuss religion.  Apparently one of Zealot Peter’s cousins presented him as a Messiah, just like that Nazarene, and all of the confusing Messiah wanna-bes have created deep factions among the Jews.  He then gives the General a pearl of wisdom.  “You want to know how to destroy the Jews?  Leave them in peace. They’ll be at each other’s throats soon enough.  But, as long as we have an enemy, we are brothers,” he says.  Geez, that’s optimistic.  Kind of damned either way, eh?

After that conversation, General Peter returns to his hovel, starts drinking and worries that his shadow is getting too thin.  “I was fat when I came here,” he says.  So just go already!

What does he do?  He has the guards bring in Zealot Peter so they can go another round.  “What does it take to stop you?” General Peter asks?  He claims he wants peace, and Zealot Peter says he wants freedom and the country back.  The General reminds him for a thousand years, someone has always run it, why not the Romans?  He then offers to bargain.  Zealot Peter wants one tax-free years, the temple rebuilt, a Jewish governor through whom Rome rules (he reminds the General of Herod, but that’s actually a really bad example if anyone looks at history), an army of Jews instead of Romans who are “allies instead of enemies.”  The deal is that if General Peter pulls the troops to north of Jericho, Zealot Peter will retire to Masada and end all raids.  General Peter agrees.  “It does make perfect sense,” he admits. 

The two then sit down to a meal together, prolonging their time together.  Zealot Peter actually trusts General Peter, who thanks him with a drunken quip, “God above, the Oriental mind!”  Thankfully friends, that’s the end of the conversation.  Not a great end to the gab-fest, but at least it’s over.  They really are doing an imitation of “The Ten Commandments.”  Peter Strauss is Charlton Heston, completely unable to act, but good at saying the words to make you think he can.  Peter O’Toole is Yul Brynner, obviously annoyed that these conversations keep occurring, but making the most of them by overacting until someone stops him (not that Peter O’Toole can ever be stopped).

Dennis is not happy that General Peter has let Zealot Peter go, mainly because the tax cannot be paid, but the General says he’ll pay the taxes himself, assuming the Emperor will reimburse him.  He tells the soldiers they are pulling back to Jericho, no taxes are to be collected and even the huts of Hebron are to be rebuilt.  But, Dennis thinks this is madness and adds a note to the one General Peter has sent to the Emperor, one with the truth, apparently so juicy that the soldier he trusts with it actually hisses, “noooooooo!” as if he’s just discovered that pink ostrich plumes have been discontinued. 

Dennis represents the Roman faction that believes this is all madness and then Zealot Peter has to return to his people and tell them of the deal, where he faces the same raised eyebrows and disbelief.  Can you blame any of them?  Two guys meet in a tent and solve a political crisis together?  History doesn’t bear that one out well, now does it? 

Enough with the desert!  Let’s have some fun in Rome.  Emperor Vespasian (Timothy West) is watching “Oedipus” with a whole assortment of people, but once it ends, the virgins are dismissed (aka, all the women) for a bawdy pantomime that goes a bit too far in mocking the emperor.

General Peter is welcomed back to Rome by David Warner, who is the only one allowed to speak to him.  Dennis note has arrived first, of course.  David leads him an audience with Vespasian under murky circumstances.  Vespasian doesn’t know what Dennis has written, but Senator Nigel Davenport does, wondering aloud why Peter agreed to a truce and the troop pull-back.  Since Peter cannot speak in the room, not being a Senator, Vespasian has to defend him.  That goes well until Nigel tells the Emperor about the whole tax issue, Peter paying them himself.  Senator David Warner tries to help, by speaking like a banker and confusing all present, talking about coins and rates and percentages and such.  It quells that part of the argument.  Nigel is on a tear, and he has a lot of support. 

The Emperor knows he’s fed Nigel and his cohorts a load of bunk and Peter is forced to defend himself.  He says the concessions are a small price to pay for peace.  The Emperor agrees, but politically, he cannot agree to the demands.  He insists that the rebels be brought to Rome and threatens that if he is forced from power and if he has to kill himself like the past few Emperors, Peter is going with him.  Oh, and Peter should know that Dennis is a spy.  Oh, and Peter is now Consul General of Judea.  Oh, and…wait…did Timothy West just say what I thought he said?  Let me rewind, hold on.  YES!  He did.  Wait’ll you hear this corker! 

“It’s hard to recognize you without a drink in your hand,” he dryly notes to Peter O’Toole. 

Oh, now really!  That’s too easy a shot.  We’re talking about Peter O’Toole the actor and not his character, I assume.  The once-great actor has been reduced to a bad Roman wig and having to spend time shooting on location with Peter Strauss, does the picture really need to ground him any further into the dirt?  Then again, it’s hard not to laugh at that jab.  O’Toole probably would have if he weren’t too drunk.

Peter and Timothy wander around the room in circles while everyone else stands mute.  Timothy and Peter once had a dream of peace, but he’s powerless to do anything about it in Judea because of the politics in Rome.  His own position is perilous. 

Back in Judea, the soldiers are restless and Dennis isn’t doing a great job of  keeping them happy.  They are bored and unpaid, looking for land instead of money, which appeals to him because he’ll get to keep the money.  The wily villain has a whole scheme concocted to steal piles of money while blaming the Jews.  To him, it seems ideal, but his second-in-command does not agree, especially since they can’t give the soldiers land that doesn’t even belong to them.

So, they simply take it, killing everyone in sight except for Barbara Carrera, an Egyptian hussy who sets her sights on the tribune and seduces him.  The soldiers take everything in sight.  Some of the displaced Jews are saucy enough to fight back verbally, for they have seen it all before, but the end result is the same: they are forced off their land and livelihood.  The only place for them to go is up to Masada, where they inform Zealot Peter that the truce has been broken by the land seizure.  Peter is in no mood to receive the same holy men who have consistently resisted his attempts at banding together and tells them that though they think they cannot be separated from their holy books, they better be prepared to work and fight. 

“We have Vespasian’s answer, now let’s give him ours,” Zealot Peter tells his cohorts to bring the first part to a dramatic close (and to cue that twinkly music from the title credits again).

The rag-tag Jews are fighting back.  They are taking more Jews and all of the food and such up to Masada while poisoning the water, killing the Romans.  “Well, it seems to be localized,” and increasingly idiotic Dennis Quilley says.  Before he and his cohort can formulate a plan, Governor General Peter O’Toole returns, with Anthony Quayle in tow, one or Rome’s best soldiers.  Peter’s servants redecorate the tent as he chews out Dennis big time, but also ordering all legions to “move on Masada.”  While on the march, Peter notices “Jewish harlot” Barbara Carrera, mistress of the tribune, and finds her “rather stylish.”  She plays Jewish about as convincingly as she played Native American as the unforgettable Clay Basket in “Centennial,” which is not very convincingly, but she does make attractive window dressing in a story that really has no place for women. 

Incidentally, have you been asking how the Jews got all of their supplies up Masada, a rock with no easy way up?  It’s a mountain that literally pops out of the land, straight up.  When we see a cow on pulleys, we have our answer.  It’s not easy work, that’s for sure.  Atop the mountain, Zealot Peter Strauss is proud of the work his people are doing in a montage that has him helping the farmers, the knife carvers, the guy with the sheep, pretty much everyone because he’s that knowledgeable and talented. 

Work has to stop when the Roman army is spotted, so Zealot Peter orders the catapults brought and the stones readied.  As the two sides prepare, a bunch of nomads gather at the base of Masada, purely commercial agents who aim to supply the Romans with whatever bounty they can afford (prostitutes, don’t you know).  Zealot Peter says he wishes sometimes he had that life, no worries about having to ever fight.

Zealot Peter than gathers the people and gives the pre-war speech.  He says the Romans can’t survive the summer without supply lines of water, that the Roman catapults cannot reach up the steep mountain.  “Where they march is where we want them to be,” he says, touching each child’s head as he passes, all but sticking campaign buttons on everyone. 

The Romans do exactly what he predicted: they gather at the base of the mountain and look imposing with their horses and uniforms and masses of men on horses.  They are placed in positions of might.  “Impressive,” says Consul General Peter.  “Impossible,” notes Anthony Quayle.  “Exactly, that’s why I brought you,” Peter retorts.  The flags and trumpets are sent to the front of the line to dazzle the Jews, who react by tossing manure over the mountain.  Anthony says not to bother shooting rocks up the mountain because they can only be used as weapons back against them. 

Our two Peters argue by shouting up and down the mountain.  It’s that easy to hear each other?  Thousands of soldiers and horses, wind, rock and all, and they just have to shout to be heard?  “Formalities are over.  Let’s get to work,” General Peter says.  The Romans build their own fortresses surrounding the mountain.  They manage to get a few men up a neighboring mountain to report on what they see, which isn’t much, just a few children playing.  General Peter finally gets his revenge on Dennis and tribune Clive Francis by sending them on a suicide mission up the mountain for recon.  Before the tribune goes up the mountain, he wills Barbara to General Peter.  “Long live…” Clive starts to say, but Peter stops him.  “It’s not necessary,” he barks.  Zealot Peter orders the men to “test their marksmanship” and kill the two, who fall off the mountain in slow motion, from which Peter merely turns his head dramatically.

General Peter goes to look through the spoils of the two he’s just had killed, meaning Barbara.  She’s a sassy dame, asking to be let go, but knowing she’s more valuable staying with the powerful man.  “Then I can be expected to be sent for?” she coos?  “You can be expected to be alive tomorrow morning,” is all Peter will promise.  Sagacious Anthony tells Peter they have to build a ramp of rock up the mountain.  “It’s a terrifying amount of work,” they agree, as if they are putting lumps of sugar in their tea since the servants have the day off.  General Peter does ritual sacrifices to the Gods that involve blood, goat liver and shirtless boys. 

Completely bored extras dressed as Roman soldiers (they can’t even summon up the energy to hoot properly at the end of a Peter O’Toole speech) start to haul rocks and build that blasted ramp up Masada.  Anthony Quayle is also something of an engineer, with all sorts of tools to make it go better.  I bet he wishes they had some Hebrew slave labor about now.  They built all those grand Egyptian monuments and never had to be paid!  Then again, they didn’t have the opportunity to watch “The Ten Commandments.”  Up atop Masada, Zealot Peter chirps, “I like to watch them work,” rather than be frightened their ramp might actually work.  When General Peter allows the men to stop working and go buy goods from the nomads, the Jews pelt them with stones from above.  The rain of the stones does a lot of damage, to the men, to the horses and to the building operation, but General Peter has time to stop and ask Barbara how she feels about it all.  If she’s getting paid per scene, she needs a whole lot more to do.

The Jews celebrate, but General Peter has a good point: why did they attack so early in the process?  They wasted an awful lot of stones.  However, he insists that the ramp project continue.  He issues all sorts of commands and then retires to his chambers, tired and thirsty.

Then comes the second great dig at one of Hollywood’s most impressive drunks, but this time HE himself says it!  General Peter’s servant silently brings him a cup of wine.  “Is the need so obvious you can see it in my face?” he asks his servant.  I’ll answer that one: not exactly, rather what CAN be seen in his face is years devoted to the stuff.  This was before Peter O’Toole turned yellow, but after he started to look 20 years older than he was.

Back atop Masada, Zealot Peter is having a crisis of faith, for about the fifth time.  He claims to have stopped believing in God, and his poor wife only exists to play the foil in these conversations.  She asks him why he fights so hard if he doesn’t believe, since the whole purpose of fighting is to preserve their monotheism against the Romans.  What he does believe for sure is that “no man should be another man’s slave.”  Then he unexpectedly shows up to pray in the synagogue, a place he has consistently avoided except to force the elders to work.  He’s even invited to lead the congregation in a psalm.  He reads from the Torah, right to left appropriately, though in English.  Hey, the elders will take what they can get, I suppose.  Reading from the Torah, even in English.  Oh, DeMille would have a full erection watching this, especially when the voices become voiceovers to the Romans conscripting any humans they can find into forced labor.  I guess NOW they finally watched “The Ten Commandments.”  It does not please the Jews on Masada to see slave labor brought in, especially since most of it is Jewish slave labor, the people who refused to join them on Masada.  That’s a dirty trick, because now it means Jews will have to kill Jews if they attempt another rock raid. 

Anthony gives the Romans a speech about how to handle slave labor.  He believes in a strict eight-hour workday, followed by a day off, because after all, “these are soft, city types.”  Apparently he thinks he’s raided Paris and taken all the artists from the Left Bank.  Moreover, they are to be fed and watered on the job.  And, slaves to best when they see a reward in sight.  “Finally, whipping.  Now, we must expect to love five men a day from whipping…overwhipping is worse than no whipping because if the death rate is too high, we won’t have enough men left,” he says to the astonished crowed.  “Treat ’em decently and they’ll do very nicely,” he summarizes.  It’s a terrific speech that would have gone over so well in the Antebellum South (though they wouldn’t have bought a word of his bunk), but sounds utterly ridiculous and humane coming from a Roman general. 

A bath is brought to Barbara’s quarters and filled with water, a precious substance forbidden to the soldiers because of its high salt content.  “Compliments of the Governor General,” the pissy soldiers snap on their way out.  General Peter’s mute slave pulls out the master’s dead wife’s death mask and then comes ANOTHER line about his drinking (Peter’s, not the General’s I suspect).  “I didn’t drink this much even when I was in the field and knew I was coming back to her,” he groans.  As if Peter O’Toole remembers why he drank on most nights?  “And I cannot keep drinking this way now!” he says, actually refusing another cup of wine.  That is the character, not Peter.  Peter O’Toole never said no to a topping off.  His dead wife speaks to him and then Barbara shows up in his tent.  Gulping down his wine, he lays it out plainly: he wants her as his mistress.  He has human needs.  “I hope I can make it reasonably pleasant for you,” he says and she disrobes.  He explodes at that!  Apparently he wants more than just sex.  He wants “civility.”  It turns into an argument, but eventually, he apologizes.  “From time to time, it would be important for me to have someone to whom I could talk to freely,” he says, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because he’s just lambasted her for being Jewish, but she’s not THAT Jewish, I suppose.  Essentially, we’re giving her something to do and trying to humanize him a little.  What is their first civil conversation about?  His dead wife and her suicide when she found out she had throat cancer.  Talk about a scene in desperate need of editing. 

There’s trouble up on Masada.  The archers want to file a volley, but the elders will not let them because the slaves are fellow Jews.  Zealot Peter agrees with the elders.  He says they will only use two weapons: intelligence and the sun.  As they fill a water hole gleefully, the Romans on the next mountain can see, which doesn’t help morale since water for the Romans and their slaves has been rationed.  The Jews start swimming in their abundant water, which can be heard down below.  That one hurts! 

Back in the time killing part of the story, Babs and General Peter are in bed, with silk sheets, where Babs is bubbling over with the events of her life.  It’s not very interesting.  Was she a virgin on her wedding night?  Did she want to kill her arranged marriage husband? 

Another Roman animal sacrifice, more shirtless boys, more eyeliner on General Peter, and the soldiers ain’t buying it anymore.  This time, the extras are told to barely react, which we know they do particularly well.  The kids on the mountain just laugh at laugh at the sacrifices.  Anthony comes up with another engineering marvel, this one approaching the engineering know-how of a suspension bridge, and General Peter goes for it.  The Romans and the slaves are barely alive, but they build this thingamajig.  Unfortunately, as good as the work is going, Anthony admits to General Peter that there is envy among the men because Peter is keeping Barbara.  She certainly looks well fed and wined.  Hell, the men are playing dice games to win water rations, but up on the mountain, there’s a ton of water for laundry.  Zealot Peter decides right at noon to let the dirty laundry water cascade off the mountain.  To make it worse, Zealot Peter yells from the mountain that he wants to share it with their Roman “strangers,” who aren’t strangers anymore because they have all been watching so closely.  Okay, that would be fun, but then he has to go and ruin it by telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and then gets just plain long winded.  He uses the power of suggestion to try to turn the Romans against their commanders and on it goes.  Another DeMille moment, full of pomp, meaning absolutely zilch.  He compares General Peter to a monkey and asks if the soldiers will follow the “monkey up this hill on a pile of your rotting corpses?” 

Not only can the two Peters talk to each other, they can see each other easily, so once Zealot Peter is done, General Peter raises his fist to him and Zealot Peter bows his head mockingly.  General Peter goes into his tent and rails at Barbara that it’s all so wasteful, when all he wants is peace.  But, a plan is formulating in his head because he knows Zealot Peter knows the Jews cannot survive up on that mountain forever.  “Vespasian’s monkey!” he toasts to end the second portion.

Somehow, the Romans continue building Anthony’s contraption.  The wind is picking up and a soldier suggests perhaps it means rain.  “It could be cantaloupes from Egypt too, but it’s not,” wise Anthony reminds him.  The Jews know a storm is coming, but the Romans of some legions are sent off to the nomads for “recreation.”  That means a bunch of women wildly gyrating their hips.  Mutiny is on the lips of some men, while whores on on the lips of the others.  Peter and Barbara wander around and he buys her a necklace, which offends her because she’s made to feel like a hooker when truly they are in love, or getting there. 

Zealot Peter and his cohorts, dressed as ninjas, repel down the mountain to feed the goats something that strange that will affect the way the sacrifices of the Roman priests will occur.  They do it and make it back up the mountain, but whatever they did remains unexplained.  Instead, we have ANOTHER bed scene with the general and his harlot that brings the movie to a dead halt.  Stick to the damn battle.  That’s where the tension is.  A ridiculous love plot is completely without merit. 

So, what’s been tossed down the goats’ throats?  Live maggots.  The priests say that’s happened only once before, at the death of Pompey the Great.  General Peter decides to give everyone a morning’s rest so he can figure out how to fight the omen, which the priest tells him means the General has to run through the camp naked.  But, if he pays a huge amount of money, a priest will do it for him.  Peter doesn’t believe the omen; he knows the Jews managed it at night.  “Oh, don’t sulk like an underpaid streetwalker,” he tells a confused Anthony, “I need you too much.  Without you, I feel outnumbered.”  I’m not sure how the first part of that sentence has anything to do with the second part, but I’m going blame the heat and general frustration of the Romans on their inability to make any sense at this point (or the writers, who are clearly stretching a three-hour story into six and change).  The Jews watch in hilarity as priests run naked around the camp. 

As the Romans soldiers are planning mutiny, a gigantic wind storm of DeMille proportions tears apart their camp.  The buildings collapse.  The animals run wild and General Peter protects Barbara.  In the morning, the whole camp is in disarray.  However, the work must continue.  The mutiny is discovered and they must face trial.  Notably, one among the accused is the man who had earlier tried to kill the General Consul.  The punishment is to circumcise the men and send them into the desert with no rations.  That’s gonna hurt. 

Purim arrives and the sound of merriment on Masada is just another reason for the Romans to be miserable. And it gets worse!  Unctuous David Warner shows up from Rome.  He says he’s there to make sure that the schedule is still on time, but Anthony knows David has only self-interest motivating him.  However, General Peter is philosophical: what could be worse than this assignment?  David’s visit couldn’t come at a worse time.  Rations are being cut while work detail is increased and a series of mishaps get written down by his persnickety secretary. 

An easy solution for the gang on Masada would be to pick off the slaves with skilled archers, but Zealot Peter still refuses.  Now the men on Masada are beginning to doubt his leadership. 

As Romans are dying from thirst, Anthony is summoned to David’s tent.  They start by trading insults in the best dialogue yet, but David gets to the point: is the big contraption going to be ready on time?  Anthony guarantees the tower and ramp will be done on time, as promised, “if I have to carry the dirt on my own back,” Anthony says, though of course David has his doubts, toady that he is to an Emperor who needs all finished on time politically.  He sends a missive to the Emperor that the soldiers are no longer of any value to to the empire and gets in the FOURTH did at Peter O’Toole directly.  He’s not sure what to say about the General, fearing blaming him outright will be politically dangerous.  He tells his secretary to write, “something about the drinking, perhaps.”  Ah, the double entendre alcoholic lines never get old!

Anthony comes up with a way shave weeks off the project when he is hit in the neck by an arrow from Masada.  That’s a setback, and now David has to start his letter to the Emperor all over again!  Before Anthony dies, he tells of his brilliant new plan, down to the hour of the attack due to the angle of the sun.  General Peter says all will continue as per the plan, but David puts his foot down.  In his capacity of Legate, he has the power of the Emperor, he relieves Peter of his command.  Peter gives him his necklace of Consul General and David orders fresh attack orders for the next day.  He’s lacking the understanding General Peter had of his enemy and acts only for political expediency. 

Now it’s David’s turn to yell up to Masada (as General Peter makes plans to take Barbara home–“everyone should see Rome,” he tells her) and fills the catapults with old Jews instead of rocks!  Zealot Peter is in a very difficult position here.  “It means they’re losing and they know it,” he tells his friends, who are looking to him for a decision.  The Jews on the mountain are horrified when David follows through with his threat and catapults old men against the mountain to sure death.  The third victim is to be Richard’s father.  David just gets meaner and meaner!  He does it well, and that’s why he won an Emmy for this, no doubt. 

Zealot Peter storms into the synagogue to have a conversation with God.  “Is this what you want?  They’ve done nothing wrong.  They’re afraid of you and they love you…what more can you make them suffer?…If you are here, Jehovah of Sinai, TALK TO ME.  TALK TO ME or kill me,” he rails as he clutches the Torah and cries.  He tells his wife he has to surrender to stop the Jew catapult routine. 

General Peter can’t take it anymore and rushes from his tent to try to wrestle back control and it works.  The soldiers remain loyal to him and David only has his few German bodyguards, oh, and his fey fat secretary.  The worm leaves the white cylinder of Legate power for Peter.  Barbara is overwhelmed with joy. 

Now that the folks on the mountain have seen the catapults being pulled away, the elders change their tune.  They tell Zealot Peter they will fight, the first time they have done so.  Since he went into the synagogue and prayed himself, and since God has apparently listened, they feel “God has sanctioned your leadership” and everyone on Masada is behind him.  This makes for a hopeful end to the third part of the story. 

General Peter has an arrow shot up to Masada asking for a midnight rendezvous.  Those around him think he’s insane, but those of us who have been watching since the beginning know these conversations are inevitable, not to mention long.  It starts with General Peter apologizing for the human catapult business.  Then he has to apologize for the broken treaty.  Zealot Peter throws it all back in his face, but General Peter yells louder, and more honest, saying that there is no way for the Jews to win.  Zealot Peter invokes the name of God as often as General Peter invokes the name of Rome as the ultimate being and ally.  “The odds are not five to one, and the bazaar is closed,” Zealot Peter says, referring to their last meeting where they negotiated like marketplace buyer and seller. 

Barbara realizes that all hope is lost for he Jews once General Peter tells her Zealot Peter “has been favored with a religious conversion.”  When religion played no part in what he was doing, when it was simply politics, he had an understandably spark in him.  Religion turns the situation into one where spiritual belief replaces reality and that will ultimately give Rome the upper hand. 

General Peter has decided that work on the ramp must be doubled, working day and night, and he even does the drudge work himself.  He is an inspiration to his men, who find it in them to work harder and the ramp and tower are built at terrifying speed to those who watch.  Up on Masada, the Jews finally arm themselves with breastplates, swords and shields.  The Jewish leaders inform the population on Roman tactics and how to beat them. 

The name of the Lord is Zealot Peter’s explanation to his son as to why they will win.  They won’t win this battle against the Romans, but they will win in the long run because God has promised them the land and every enemy who has taken it from them is no better than the dust he lets slip through his finger.  But, in the long run, Rome will be vanquished too.  The Jews then turn their fear into anger the Jewish slaves and they scream at them to fight back, which of course they can’t do. 

It’s Barbara’s turn to let loose with a big loud speech.  It’s rather unimportant because her character is so silly, but basically she says she admires the Zealots and that since Peter has never asked her what she wanted, he’s assumed she’s happy being a slave to him.  “I hate him.  I hate them all,” she says of her fellow Jews, “because without them, I wouldn’t be here,” referring to the way they treated her when she first arrived in Judea.  “Then why hate me?” Peter asks.  “Because without you they wouldn’t be here,” believing in a hopeless cause.  The worst things the Romans have done is “force the rest of us to learn the truth about ourselves,” she says.  He’s assumed all along that she wants to return to Rome with him, but she replies that she’s never had a choice.

Mercifully, this conversation ends when it is announced that the ramp is finished.  Hopefully it also means an end to the goat slaughters, shirtless boys and braying priests.  The the ramp finished, the tower is wheeled to it.  DeMille would have loved this too.  It makes for an imposing set piece, even though up close it looks like it’s made of papier mache. 

The Jews all congregate outside to hear a sermon and pray together.  Service over, it’s time to get ready for battle.  The men are arranged in battle formations and the women fill huge pots with water to boil.  They are all very excited until they see the tower the Romans have built for the first time.  Zealot Peter is told to think of something fast to tell everyone and to make it sound like Moses or everyone will lose hope.  His idea is to build an “inner wall that will absorb the blows” from the battering ram, but he’s not so sure himself, because he mutters a bit old “damn you” under his breath. 

Everything is in place below the mountain.  The tower is moved into place and the soldiers are ready to climb it with ladders.  The music swirls and the tension mounts.  This is what we’ve been waiting for.  It’s taken a few hours too of rhetoric too long, but now we have our exciting battle scene.  The Jewish archers are powerless against the metal tower and right before the battering ram starts smashing against the wall, General Peter sends a mind-to-mind message to Zealot Peter to surrender.  Of course he doesn’t hear it and the battering ram does the trick, smashing through the wall, but only the first wall.  The second wall is impenetrable to the battering, so the Romans set fire to the wall, which means the water will have to be used to douse the fire.  But, the Romans are too close and can pick off Jews one by one with arrows. 

Both sides stop to see which way the wind will blow.  If it turns toward the tower, the tower will burn and be damaged, except for the iron plates.  So, General Peter sounds the retreat.  “We’ll take it in the morning,” he says.  The elders praise Zealot Peter for his faith, but he also knows the wind will shift back in their direction, destroying their walls. 

General Peter gives Barbara her freedom, hoping she’ll choose to accompany him to Rome because he loves her.  He’s hoping she’ll stay.  “Do you love me?”  “Yes, of course,” she says in a whisper and leaves his tent. 

The wind changes again after Zealot Peter and his wife tell their son the story of their meeting to waste some time.  He calls together his core people and asks each one, “what is possible?”  Everyone has an answer, but no matter what, “we will become Roman trinkets,” he says.  He says even the worst of the Jews don’t deserve the treatment the Romans will heap on them.  “I say we shouldn’t insult the Roman flesh by letting them touch it while we live,” he states gravely.  He’s talking of mass suicide, Jonestown style.  I don’t remember seeing vats of Kool-Aid, but I guess Zealot Peter has a plan.  Everyone agrees, but they worry about telling the whole Masada population.  So calm is Peter that he asks one of his men if he’s had time to make love to his gal.  The answer is yes.

In order to tell everyone else what has to be done, Zealot Peter asks the butcher to explain how to kill without pain.  It’s not making sense to anyone, and it gets worse because Peter works himself into a speechifying lather that sounds like random words sewn together, but delivered with enough gravitas that it sounds important.  Classic DeMille, yet again.  “There is only one way to stand before God and say ‘I am free.  I have always been free,'” he tells them, reminding them that the Romans have never made good on a promise to not turn Jews into slaves after winning a battle.  It’s a heavy bit of brainwashing, but apparently effective.  The women do their part for the cause by dressing in their finest and donning make-up.  “This is how I want them to find me,” Mrs. Zealot Peter says.  The soldiers remove their armor and everyone agrees to the plan.  Then there is a hugging montage as everyone says their silent goodbyes. 

The holy books are placed in a secret chamber and then the knives come out.  Zealot Peter approaches his wife and son with a knife, all resigned to their fate. 

In the morning, the Romans are rested and ready.  Barbara has fled, as was her choice, but left behind the necklace he gave her.  General Peter tells the soldiers he wants Zealot Peter taken alive (oops, too late) and remember, “do your best!”  If that were the motto of the Roman empire, they wouldn’t have gotten very far, now would they?  The Romans stream onto Masada, to “no sounds of any fighting.”  General Peter goes up to Masada himself and finds nothing but quiet and emptiness.  Oh, and nearly 1000 dead bodies.  Naturally, General Peter wants some time alone once he finds his arch-enemy/best friend’s body.  “I made a novice’s mistake.  I overestimated you,” he says.  “What in the name of common sense does something like this prove?” he wonders aloud.  “I would never have let this happen to you,” is part of his speech, but does he really believe it?  Does he really think he could have saved them from slavery? 

“We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea,” General Peter expounds wearily as the Romans stake their claim. 

Back in the present, the Israeli flag flies over Masada as the army holds its induction ceremony there.  There is a sign promising that Masada will never be overtaken. 

Theoretically, the story of the Masada chapter in history is a fascinating one and the last section of this movie is quite thrilling, full of not only spectacle, but ethical and moral questions, characters with flaws and tough decisions to make.  Unfortunately, it takes over five hours of long speeches and lazy days to get there. 

Categories: Historical Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question