I don’t know when I first became aware of the story of Masada, and the tragedy of what occurred there. It may have been the first time I watched the TV mini-series starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. Certainly my interest rekindled when I read the amazing story by Alice Hoffman called The Dove Keepers which draws together the lives of 4 women with varied backgrounds who tended the doves at Masada until the end of the story. It has also spurred my interest in the archaeology of the Middle East. It is a story of courage and faith, and a refusal to bend to the slavery of the cruel Roman Empire.
I’ve been watching Masada while riding my stationary bike the past few days and am taken again by both the story and the acting skill of Peter O’Toole (General Silva). Filmed almost entirely in Israel using a replica of the fortress (approximately a mile away from the original stronghold), and under the directorship of Boris Sagal, the series was based on a book of the same name by Ernest K. Gann, and the filming in that dessert location is stunning. There’s not a lot of known/confirmed history about this event aside from about 5 pages from the writings of Josephus, a Romano-Jewish scholar/historian of the 1st century and some archaeological evidence uncovered by Yigael Yadin. Despite scant documentation, Gann, and screenwriter Joel Oliansky, have created a compelling scenario with accompanying drama and tension, as the stand-off unfolds between Silva and Eleazar, both unlikely and sympathetic heroes.
Out of 13 Prime-time Emmy Awards, the series won 8 of them, including outstanding lead actor for both O’Toole and Strauss (Eleazar) and lead supporting actor for Anthony Quayle (Rubrius Gallus, Silva’s chief engineer). The music by Jerry Goldsmith and the set design (see names here) were also fantastic. This is another “futility of war” movie but a stunning movie that begins with the burning of Jerusalem. N.Y. Times writer John J. O’Connor called it an epic to “snuggle up to”, served up “on a grand scale: historic sweep, heightened confrontations, explosive passions” and described O’Toole’s performance as one that “steals every scene that comes anywhere near him . . . in his inimitably polished way”. One of the great epics of all time! * * * * *