Director: Boris Sagal
Cast: Peter O'Toole (General Cornelius Flavius Silva), Peter Strauss (Eleazar ben Yair), Barbara Carrera (Sheva), Anthony Quayle (Rubrius Gallus), David Warner (Senator Pomponius Falco), Giulia Pagano (Miriam), Reuven Bar-Yotam (Joshua, the Butcher), Richard Basehart (Narrator), John Terry Bell (Israeli Master of Ceremonies), Heinz Bernard (Elder), Christopher Biggins (Claudius Albinus, Falco's secretary), David A. Block (Reuben), Christal Blue (Fatima), Nick Brimble (Milades), Warren Clarke (Plinius, mutineer), Nigel Davenport (Senator Mucianus), Vernon Dobtcheff (Chief Priest), Michael Elphick (Vettius), Alan Feinstein (Aaron), Clive Francis (Attius, Head Tribune and Vespasian's spy), Patrick Gorman (Tribune), David Hooks (Kophar), Ken Hutchison (Fronto), George Innesm (Titus), Alex Karras (Roman Soldier), David Mauro (Epos, Silva's servant), Kevin McNally (Norbanus), Derek Newark (Engineering Officer), David Opatoshu (Shimon), Alexander Peleg (Zidon), John Phillips (Centurion), Richard Pierson (Ephraim), Denis Quilley (General Marcus Quadratus), Norman Rossington (Maro), Joe Sagal (Seth), Michael Schneider (Surgeon), William Morgan Sheppard (Sergeant), Michael Shillo (Ezra), Paul L. Smith (Gideon), Ray Smith (Lentius - Would-Be Assassin), Anthony Valentine (Merovius, Head Tribune), Jack Watson (Decurion), Diana Webster (Quintilia), Timothy West (Emperor Vespasian), Joseph Wiseman (Jerahmeel, Head Essene).
Based on: Ernest K. Gann's novel "The Antagonists."
Made for TV (mini-series).
The movie re-creates the Roman siege of the Jewish fortress Masada.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Masada means "fortress". Set on top of a high mesa surrounded by open spaces, Masada was considered impregnable. Today the Israeli army has their soldiers sworn in on the summit of Masada. In the battle for Masada 960 Hebrew men, women and children stood against 5,000 Roman legionnaires of the 10th Legion. Rome captured Palestine in the first century B.C. The Jewish rebellion took four years and 600,000 Jewish dead before the rebellion was put down.
Flashback. Jerusalem 70 A.D. The Romans are killing the Jewish residents of Jerusalem.
Eleazar ben Yair, leader of a group of Jewish rebels known as the Zealots, kills a Roman soldier. He tells his men that they will meet where they planned. Inside a building, Eleazar kills another soldier. The men escape over the walls. The Romans are all over the hills. Eleazar's nuclear family and a few others asks him about the other family members. The others are not coming. Somebody shouts: "It's finished." Eleazar says: "No it's not finished."
Three years later. The 10th Legion occupies Israel. Eleazar and his men make their presence known in the southern countryside. The Judean War that the Romans thought was finished is not yet over. Eleazar and his men ambush a small group of Romans and kill them all.
Hebron. A messenger arrives at a Roman encampment. The trumpet sounds and the troops gather together. The announcement is that the collection of taxes will soon begin. General Cornelius Flavius Silva arrives. He is the General commanding. He talks with a few of the troops. Someone pipes up with: "When are we going home?" An officer wants to know who said that, but Silva tells him to never mind.
Silva says that Rome wants money. And in order to get money out of Israel the Roman soldiers must keep the peace. That won't be so easy with 5,000 homesick Roman policemen. While Silva is composing a letter back to Rome, a soldier named Lentius tries to assassinate the general. He is stopped by the guards. Silva knows there is mutinous fever among the men, so he decides to speak to them. He says that Emperor Vespasian is the first decent man in the job of emperor in the last one hundred years. He adds: "You stupid bastards! It's almost over! If I can't take you home, who can?" Then he calls for the best friend of Lentius to execute him. But at the last minute, Silva lets Lentius go.
Eleazar will raid Hebron. He tells the Essenes, a religious sect, that they too will have to fight. The Essenes are not pleased with this idea. Eleazar tells them about the Romans: "We can remind them that some Jews are still free."
The doctor fixes Silva's wounded leg thurt during the assassination attempt. Silva says that the Zealots have lost heart and have dispersed. So now he feels he can return to Rome. After all, the common people want peace. The Judean War is over.
Eleazar leads another raid. The idea is to burn granaries and then get away. He tells the Romans that they will meet again at Angetti. When Silva learns of the attack he takes his cavalry and starts to pursue the guerrillas. Silva arrives at Hebron. He learns that the Roman in charge has ordered that every third hut of the Jews be burned. This upsets Silva a great deal. He explains to the commander that the Jewish farmers must prosper enough so that they can be taxed at a higher level. Silva then takes a look at the guerrilla prisoner. He finds him hanging upside down by a rope. The general is not happy with this either. He lets the prisoner go and tells him to let Eleazar know that he (the general) wants to meet with him.
Eleazar comes to talk with Silva. Marcus Quadratus wants to take Eleazar prisoner. But Silva is more interested in talking. He tells Eleazar that the Romans will annihilate the Jewish rebels. He adds: "I've been here for seven years. . . I am sick of Jews." Eleazar responds: "I invite you to try to catch us and kill us. " He adds that the general may never get back home. Silva tells him that he is insane: "We know about Masada. We'll get your women and children." Eleazar starts walking away. Silva thinks a minute about Eleazar's determination and then tells the guards: "Bring that man back." They put Silva is a cell. Some of the Jewish residents of Hebron are mad at him for burning the granaries. One of the enraged ones is the father of Ephraim, who was captured and then released.
Silva talks with the imprisoned Eleazar. He asks the rebel: "What will peace cost?" Eleazar says one tax-free year to rebuild; a governor-general who is a Jew with a Jewish army; that Israel have the status of an ally, not a slave state; and the retreat of Roman troops north of Jericho. Then Israel will be ruled as in the day of King Herod. Silva and Eleazar agree to a truce and Silva releases Eleazar.
Second-in-command Marcus Quadratus wants to replace Silva. He is given an opening when Silva says that the problem of non-collection of taxes will be remedied by he himself paying the taxes from his own purse. That will give them time to rebuilt the burned-out huts in Hebron and collect the necessary taxes. Quadratus sees an opportunity and he sends a damning message to Rome about Silva.
Eleazar's men are amazed that Silva let him go. He tells his men that Silva will take his proposal to Rome to hear what Vespasian thinks about it. So they will wait and see what Rome has to say.
In Rome Vespasian watches a critical skit about Rome and the rebellious Israel. The Jews just won't bow down to the Romans. The Jewish character even hits the Caesar character on the head. Vespasian does not like what he sees. Silva talks with supposed ally Senator Pomponius Falco. Vespasian is in a real bind. Senator Lucianus has become a powerful rival. Lucianus criticizes Roman policy in Israel and Silva himself. Why, for instance, have the Roman troops been pulled so far back from the Jewish rebels? And why conclude a truce with the enemy? Despite these criticisms, Vespasian appoints Silva the governor-general of Judea. Lucianus lets it be known that Silva is paying the taxes from Judaea from his own pocket. Falco speaks up to say that the Judean taxes are being collected. Silva merely advanced the money to Rome, thereby actually making more money available for Rome. Everyone wants to know where Rome stands in Judea. The claim is made that within six months, the 10th Legion will be available for service elsewhere.
Silva tell Vespasian that the concessiones asked by Eleazar are a small price to pay for peace: "What they want is what we should have done in the first place." Vespasian agrees in theory, but now it is already too late. There has been too much controversy over Judea. The emperor tells Silva to get himself a new second in command. Marcus Quadratus and his right-hand man are spies for the opposition. Silva wants Rubrius Gallus, the famous siege commander, as his second in command and his wish is granted. Vespasian cautions Silva to be discreet in what he does about Marcus Quadratus and his assistant.
A village in Judea. A Roman soldier getting out of the service asks Quadratus to give him property in exchange for his outgoing cash. Quadratus likes the idea, because he can get a lot of cash this way. Soon 500 men will be mustering out and many will willingly take property in exchange for their pay. (Of course, Quadratus is just going to confiscate the Jewish property and give it to the soldiers.) He feels confident that the Jews will break the truce, giving him the justification for more land grabbing. Quadratus's men not only grab the land, but often kill the property owners themselves.
At one of the places to be confiscated, a beautiful Jewish woman named Sheva appeals to Quadratus's second in command. She says: "Tribune, I am clean." She was born in Egypt and lived in Alexandria. He agrees to let her go with him. She then brings out her mother and father who will go with her.
The former Roman soldiers abuse the Jewish people working the land. They often force every Jewish person off the land. Even the Essenes are pushed off their land. They appeal to Eleazar, saying the Romans have taken all the farmland of the lower Jordan River Valley. The peace has been broken. The Essenes dress all in white and are the guardians of the scroll. Eleazar takes them to Masada where he informs the Essenes that they must work: No work and no fighting will get a man thrown off the plateau. The Essenes place the scrolls in the temple.
Eleazar tells his people: "We have Vespasian's answer. Now let's give him ours." Eleazar has wanted to implement the truce, but Vespasian had told Silva: "You can't grant concessions once you've proclaimed a victory." Eleazar and his men start poisoning the well-water available to the Romans. Silva returns from Rome. He is accompanied by Rubrius Gallus. Silva learns that the peace has been broken and so decides that he has no choice but to move on Masada. With a large force Silva heads to Masada. All the Jews in that area head up hill to Masada. Eleazar puts the Essenes to work hauling a cow up the cliff. Before the Romans even arrive, the Moabites have set up camp. They know they will make money by providing women dancers and prostitutes, as well as liquor, to the Roman soldiers.
The next morning the Roman forces split into two groups, one heading to the left side of Masada and the other to the right side. Silva decides to send the two spies up the mountain side as a two-man scouting patrol. It is not long before the two men are killed by arrows shot from above. With the death of Quadratus and his second-in-command, Silva inherits Sheva. He tells her that she will be under his protection.
Rubrius Gallus decides that a ramp most be build heading up the western side of Masada. The priests sacrifice a goat to check the purity of its inner organs. Clean organs are taken as a good sign indicating success in the military campaign.
The soldiers are very affected by the heat around Masada. And then 14 Roman soldiers are killed when they are bombarded by big stones thrown from Jewish launchers. The chief armorer is dead.
Up on Masada Ephraim has taken a liking to Kotura. Eleazar, a big religious skeptic, decides to go to temple to pray. He brings his closest group of fighters with him. Inside the temple, Eleazar is asked to lead everyone in a song of thanksgiving.
The Romans have come up with a new solution. They will use Jewish slaves to build the ramp. The Jews on top of Masada will certainly not kill their brothers. Ephraim's father is one of the men used as slave labor. Silva wants the slaves to be treated relatively well. He says that over-whipping is worse than not whipping. The whipping guards will be rotated more often to keep them from getting too callous to the slaves. He says: "Treat them decently and they will do very nicely."
The widower Silva speaks with the beautiful Sheva. He has a bathtub brought in for her enjoyment. Silva tells Sheva that he would like her to be civil to him and provide him with some company.
On top of Masada Eleazar starts using psychological warfare against the Romans. He fills up a small pool to turn it into a swimming pool. Then he has his close group of men jump in the water. It is soon reported to the Romans that the Jews are swimming up there on top of the mesa. The head Roman foreman has everyone stop working for a minute or two to hear the sounds of the swimming men having fun. Everyone hears the noise of glee , just to have to return to work again.
Now Silva and Sheva are sleeping in the same bed. Sheva says that her Jewish husband could not forgive her for some of her behavior. He even wanted to whip her. She put a stop to this by telling him that she would kill him in his sleep one night.
The Romans begin to build a tower behind a ridge so the Jews cannot see its construction. Rubrius speaks with Silva and tells him that his having the Jewish woman makes all the men envious, which is not good for morale. But Silva is not interested in changing. A soldier becomes very sick. The doctor examines him and notices the man is dehydrated. Too many men are gambling with their morning drink of rationed water. The doctor tells the officer with him to make sure they put a stop to this type of gambling.
More psychological warfare. Eleazar has the pools of water for washing clothes all released over the cliff all at once. The Romans and their slaves stare longingly at the beautiful waterfall. Eleazar then shouts down at the enemy and especially criticizes Silva for being Vespasian's pet monkey. When Silva sees Sheva, she tells him: "He's quite something" referring to Eleazar. Silva is not to happy with her comment.
The ramp and tower are nearing completion. But a dust storm seems to be coming. The soldiers go to the Moabite camp to watch the dancers and line up to have sex with the prostitutes. Eleazar and his men take advantage of the situation to climb down from the mountain using long ropes. They are going to poison the goats so that their internal organs will look terrible thereby creating bad omens for battle success. Silva takes Sheva with him to the entertainment. They meet the leader of the Moabite entertainment and Silva buys Sheva a necklace. But Sheva is still not happy. She still feels herself a slave. Speaking of slavery, Silva tells her that the Jews laboring for the Roman are not slaves: "When this is over, they'll be free."
The soldiers start returning from the Moabite entertainment and Eleazar and his men have to get out quickly. They kill one of the guards and take his body with them away from the camp so it will not be discovered.
Sheva continues talking with Silva. She tells him: "There is nothing I can give you. There is only that which you can take." A report comes in of the first desertion for the Romans. (They don't know it, but the man who is thought to be the deserted was the guard the Israelis killed.) More bad news comes. During the goat sacrifice, the organs were discovered riddled with live maggots -- definitely a bad omen. The news gets out to the superstitious soldiers. Penance must be done and so Silva hires a barefoot man to run around the camp in his skivvies. A small group of soldiers including the would-be assassin of Silva start plotting to leave to be mercenaries in Africa.
A bad dust storm arrives. Many of the Roman buildings are damaged and others blown down. The ramming device becomes buried in the sand dunes. Eleazar uses the occasion to release another waterfall over the walls of the mesa. The plot of the deserters goes forward. They plan to get the money they need from robbing Silva. But as they approach Silva's tent, the plotters are surrounded by soldiers loyal to Silva. The would-be assassin rat finked on the plotters. The usual punishment would be for the men to be flayed alive and then have their heads cut off with their own swords. Instead, Silva turns out the men into the desert without boots, foot or water. In addition, they will be circumcised.
The Jews on top of the mesa celebrate Purim, a festival of deliverance based on the story of Queen Esther in Babylon saving her people.
The Moabite caravan is entering the Roman encampment. Senator Falco from Rome arrives. He wants to know for what reason are the Jews celebrating. He reports to Silva that the opposition to Vespasian grows stronger everyday. Vespasian wants to know if the Judean expedition will finish on schedule. Silva says that they will meet the schedule. After Falco leaves, Gallus tells Silva to be very wary of Falco. The man is poison, deadly. Silva replies: "Stay out of politics my dear friend. You are too honest." Sheva and Silva talk and she tells the general that Gallus has recently been more more courteous to her: "He thinks I make you happy." Silva agrees.
Because of the dust storm clogging the northern wells, water rations have to be cut by one-quarter. Falco makes a tour of the camp. He sees a runaway wagon heading down the ramp. His secretary makes a note of it. The Roman soldiers start training for combat. Falco suggests to Silva an easier way to end the stand-off. He suggests that they kill the Jewish slaves. Silva definitely does not like the idea.
Falco starts to dictate a very negative letter to the Senate. He says that Silva's performance is below expectations and that the troops are exhausted and will not be able to serve duty on the Danube River. Falco plans for his second letter to be one in which he tells the Senate how he set all the wrong things right. Falco will also put in the letter a remark about Silva drinking too much liquor. But then the situation completely changes. Gallus gets himself killed when he goes to the top of the ramp without being careful to use protection from the Jewish archers. An arrow goes right into the neck of Gallus. He is brought to the doctor, but he is dying. Gallus tries to tell the officers as much as he can about building the ramp before he dies. With news of the death of Gallus, Falco tears up his letter.
Falco wants to take advantage of the situation to take over command from Silva. He tells Silva that he cannot finish on time and and so he (Falco) won't permit the expedition to continue. To back up his power, he brings out the staff of the Imperial Legate and a letter signed by Vespasian giving command to Falco. Silva is so disgusted that he decides to return to Rome and retire. With Silva out of the way, Falclo starts to implement his plan to kill the Jewish slaves one after another. The launcher is set up, Eleazar is warned and the countdown begins. When Eleazar does not budge, the first victim is placed into the launcher and then thrown against the mesa wall. Still with no response, the executions continue. They even grab Ephraim's father and launch him against the mesa wall.
Sheva is very upset at what is happing to the Jewish slaves. But Silva only talks about all the joys of Rome they will enjoy once they settle there. Eleazar is also very upset about the executions. He goes into the temple and asks God to tell him how he can help the slaves. Eleazar decides that he must surrender himself in order to stop the killings. But Silva intervenes.
Silva is disgusted listening to the executions. He grabs his sword and runs down to place of execution. He says that he is the man in charge of the army and he is retaking control. He gets the soldiers to declare their loyalty to him and Falco has to back down. Sheva is very proud of what Silva did for the slaves. With the stopping of the executions, the Essenes declare that God has sanctioned Eleazar's leadership. They will now fight alongside Eleazar.
Silva writes a message to Eleazar, attaches it to an arrow and has an archer shoot up on top of the mesa. The note requests a meeting between Silva and Eleazar. They meet among the rocks and Silva wants to make sure that Eleazar knows that he had nothing to do with the execution of the slaves. He says it was a great source of shame. He explains that the Romans want the Jewish rebel leadership brought to Rome alive. But Eleazar doesn't think Silva is saying anything worth listening to. Both men are snappy toward one another and soon leave.
When Silva returns he tells his officers that they will work day and night to cut the time in half required to construct the rest of the ramp. Silva mentions that Eleazar seems to have been favored with a religious conversion. The tower is now finished and the ramp progressed 27 feet since yesterday. Ephraim finds it hard to accept that the Jewish slaves are preparing the ramp that will lead to the destruction of the Jewish Masada. He shouts down to them to fight against the Romans. Sheva can't stand hearing his calls for rebellion and covers her ears. She tells Silva: "You stupid, stupid man. I hate him. I hate them all." Silva says: "When the time comes, they will surrender." Sheva is not quite so sure of this happening. She explains that she has never been given the choice to chose between staying with Silva or moving on. Sheva wants to have the options provided by choice.
The ramp is ready. The tower is brought out. The Jewish defenders are crushed to see the tower. Now they see how the Romans will get into Masada. The tower is pulled up the ramp using pulleys. It is pulled up right next to the wall of the fortress. The ram is then used to break holes in the wall. So the Jews use their remaining time to build a soft inner wall that will absorb the punishment from the ramming device. The Romans respond by setting fire to the huge timbers used for the inner wall. But later the wind changes and the platform catches fire. Because of its outer iron plating, the platform survives. Silva, knowing it will take the fire awhile to destroy the soft inner wall, tells his men that they will take the fortress in the morning.
There is great jubilation among the Jewish defenders when the Romans stop for the day: "Yeah, the first day is ours!" The wind shifts again and the fire increases on the Jewish inner wall.
Silva asks Sheva: "Where would you go, Sheva?" He is giving Sheva her freedom. He adds: "The choice you wanted is yours. I love you." She will be taken to a port. A ship will be there to take her anyplace she wants to go. He asks Sheva: "Do you love me?" Sheva responds: "Of course I do." Silva tells her to go to her hut to think about what she is going to do. It seems like she will stay with Silva, but then she sees a Jewish slave struggling with his great load. Her eyes become all wet. Her Roman escort says to her about Silva: "An extraordinary man isn't he?"
The wind has picked up and the timbers are burning ever faster now. Eleazar says that he wants to talk just to his people first. He tells his men that they were the very first to stand against the Romans. But he does not want to happen to Masada what happened to the Jews in Jerusalem. The Romans had promised leniency, but once they were in control of the city they starting killing the Jews. Eleazar asks for ways out of their current situation, but nothing offered is at all possible. So he suggests that they deny the victory to the Romans by killing all the Jews of Masada. He has all the men write their names on pottery shards and he picks out ten names at random. These men will kill anyone who cannot kill members of their family or themselves.
Miriam, the wife of Eleazar, makes-up her face. Eleazar talks with the whole group. He has the butcher tell the people how to kill animals without pain. The way to do it is to cut the carotid and jugular artery/vein. Eleazars says that tomorrow morning, the Romans will reach them. With them will come death, slavery, amputations, mutilations, rape, etc. But suicide will be a way of telling the Romans: "I am free!" They will make an end and make it themselves. This way they can be their own masters. The Essene head man tells Eleazar: "You are asking a great deal of many of these people."
Eleazar tells the people that the choice is theirs. The Romans will kill them or enslave them. And if you try to hide they will find you. The people agree with the plan. The people start saying their good-byes to one another. Eleazar chooses to kill his son and wife and then himself.
Silva starts to leave for the ramp. He notices that Sheva is not in her hut. On a blanket she has left behind the necklace he had bought and given to her at the Moabite encampment. The ramming device breaks through the walls. The Romans start rushing into the breech. But there is absolutely no resistance. The Romans are a bit confused. They start to check room by room and find dead body after dead body in the various rooms. Silva tells his men he wants to be left alone. He goes to talk to the body of Eleazar. He asks: "What in the name of common sense does this thing prove? . . . You didn't trust me. . . . I should have put the proposition sooner. You'd be alive now and the three of us would be half way home (Rome) . . . Nobody is listening anymore. Not even Vespasian's monkey."
The word victory is used about what happened at Masada. Silva asks: "The victory? We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea."
Back to the present. Israeli jet airplanes fly over Masada. "Masada shall not fall again." "They are remembered."
Good movie. It was a little too long. Some of the scenes seemed to be just so much filler to make four parts. But the conflict between two men of good will, the Roman general Silva and the Jewish rebel leader Eleazar, was very interesting. They both try to be honorable men in a world that is not just. Another interesting conflict was in the heart of the Jewish mistress of the general, the beautiful Sheva. She craved creature comforts provided by the Romans, but had an intense desire to not see her people mistreated and killed. Still another interesting conflict was the internal politics within the Roman government. It seemed a fairly decent truce could have been worked out, but the internal politics in Rome made this impossible. Peter O'Toole as General Cornelius Flavius Silva and Peter Strauss as Eleazar ben Yair were both terrific.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
40 B.C. -- King Herod of Judea and his family flee from Jerusalem to Masada. He fortifies the citadel against a possible attack either from the Jewish people or Egypt's Cleopatra.
6-66 A.D. -- Roman garrison probably stationed here.
66 A.D. -- outbreak of the Jewish War; Menahem, son of Judah the Galilean, and his Zealots capture Masada. Menahem murdered by Jewish rivals. His nephew Eleazar ben Yair escapes to Masada where he becomes a tyrant.
69-79 A.D. -- Vespasian is emperor of Rome. It is he who suppresses the Jewish revolt in Galilee and it is his son Titus who captures Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple in 70 CE.
70 A.D. -- fall of Jerusalem after Jewish revolt. Only Masada remained to resist the enemy.
72 A.D. -- Roman governor Flavius Silva decides to crush Masada. Silva takes the Tenth Legion and sets up eight separate camps for a long siege against Masada. After nine months of hard labor the Jewish slave laborers build an assault ramp to the top and the stone wall.
The Romans broke through the stone wall with their battering ram and then used fire to destroy a stubborn wall of earth and wood. They planned to enter the next day to finish off the defenders of Masada. But before they could put their plan into effect, the Jewish defenders killed themselves. With the exception of two women and five children hiding in a cave, the Romans only found dead bodies and burned personal belongings.
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