The two-hour videotape version of the mini-series "Masada" remains in my mind as the greatest single abomination in terms of editing down a mini-series. They did the same thing with "Shogun," which was bad enough, but they had some narration to cover up all their bloody cutting in that instance, and there was nothing to salvage what they did to "Masada." Specifically, they took out all of the debate and rhetoric that led to mass suicide, which was precisely the part I was most interested in seeing again. So I am one of the countless number who were happy to see that the complete 1981 ABC mini-series was finally available on DVD.
Watching "Masada" again after a quarter of a century I was surprised to find how much of it I remembered, especially when it comes to Peter O'Toole's mesmerizing performance as Flavius Silva, leader of the 10th Roman Legion and Governor-General of Judea. In Part II, when Silva rises to his feet and critique's Eleazar psychological warfare, I could vividly recall how that scene was inter-cut with others in ABC's previews for the second week of the mini-series. O'Toole was nominated but did not win an Emmy for his performance (but then Robert Duvall did not win for "Lonesome Dove," so I never expect justice when it comes to the Emmys). Peter Strauss plays Eleazar ben Yair, leader of the defenders of Masada, and in the conflict of this story he is the baritone to O'Toole's tenor. The two clash marvelously, and yet it is clear that if the world had allowed them to work together they could have accomplished great things.
My first wife was doing her Master's Thesis on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple before Jonestown (she had friends who had joined his church, heard him preach, and knew he was a pathological snake-oil salesman). After Jonestown as the press groped for a reason why hundreds of people would take their own lives in the name of religion, the historical reference of the siege of Masada in 73 A.D., where 936 inhabitants killed themselves rather than be captured and tortured by the Romans. The paradox was how the martyrs of Masada could be heroes while those in Jonestown were delusional. "Guyana Tragedy: Jim Jones Story" aired on CBS in 1980, and ABC showed "Masada" in four parts the following year. Both are riveting in different ways, and produce, as you would expect, diametrically opposed reactions.
You will not be surprised to hear that of the two it is "Masada" that is more bearable to watch a second time. The only real slow part of the six hours comes at the beginning of Part III, because nothing really happens as the siege progresses, but that is a necessary lull to set up when Falco (David Warner) takes over the siege and tries his own sick little version of coercion (I have never liked the "look what you made me do" excuse for barbarity). Then we have one of the best scenes, as Silva and Eleazar are both tormented by the sounds of what is happening, and their reactions end up sanctioning Eleazar's leadership. I still find Barbara Carrera's character of Sheva to be largely unnecessary, although she does give Silva somebody to talk to as he gives weight to the voices in his mind ("You're worse than a mirror," he tells her). I also think her response to what happens at Masada to be an unnecessary pain for Silva, whose belief in reason makes the outcome of the siege painful enough (he proves that with his "That is not Rome," speech when he stops Falco). If there is one line I remember from this mini-series it is Silva's, "I should have put the proposition sooner." There are absolutely no extras, and the end of one of the scenes in Part IV ends abruptly, so in the end we really do not have the "complete" mini-series (but better two minutes lost than only two hours left). The cast features Anthony Quayle as the siege master Rubrius Gallus, Joseph Wiseman as the Head Essene Jerahmeel, and big Paul L. Smith as Gideon.
"Masada" is not history but drama; who knows if Silva and Eleazar ever spoke to each other, let alone having a clandestine meeting on the slopes of Masada during the siege. Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Tudor never met, but I know of no dramatist who has avoided putting them into a room together in telling their story. Ernest K. Gann, best known as the author of "The High and the Mighty," told the story of Masada as "The Antagonists," republished in paperback when the mini-series was produced as "Masada: A novel of love, courage and the triumph of the human spirit." Gann put the focus on Silva and Eleazar, and the mini-series rightfully follows his lead. The screenplay is by Joel Olianksy, writer-director of "The Competition," and he certainly gives O'Toole and Strauss plenty to work with (e.g., Eleazar proposes the mass suicide while looking at his wife and son), which explains the results. Equally important, the strategy and tactics of the siege, by definition a relatively long and boring process, are worked out in great detail (e.g., the attackers moving the battle tower into position while the defenders "soften" the gate). Whatever really happened was probably not as interesting, but the results here are impressive even before we get to the mass suicide, which is precisely what the point of telling this story should be.