DVD Review: Peter O’Toole In The Epic Mini-Series MASADA


Masada is a 1981 television mini-series starring acting legend Peter O’Toole and helmed by directing stalwart Boris Sagal (The Omega Man). The series is an entertaining and well made production that charts the siege of the Jewish fortress at Masada by the Romans in 1st Century A.D. and the political and emotional shenanigans that ensued.

O’Toole heads up the cast as Flavius Silvalavius, the leader of the Romans who are attempting to destroy a small pocket of zealots who have fenced themselves into the titular fortress. O’Toole is powerful in the role of Flavius, treating the script as if it were Shakespeare and the Palestinian locations as if they were a stage. Peter Strauss who was then best known for Rich Man, Poor Man (also directed by Sagal) plays Eleazar ben Yair, the Jewish leader who infuriates Flavius and causes all sorts of problems for Rome.

Based on Earnest K. Gann’s book The Antagonists, Masada is a long piece of television (about 6 ½ hours). In the 1970’s and early 1980’s the mini-series was a huge tradition in the world of television. Big budgets and big stars led to big ratings for the networks and it wasn’t until the rise in satellite and cable that the institution lost its lustre. This two disc set means that you can watch Masada without any interruptions, and while this does maximise the viewer’s pleasure because they don’t have to wait for the next instalment – it is almost like sitting down to read a giant Gore Vidal novel in one sitting.

The series looks like there was no expense spared and considering that it was made well before the digital age, the vistas and sets are very impressive. On the whole the performances are also of a high standard – with the odd exception (Barbara Carrera – I’m looking at you) while Denis Quilley, David Warner and Nigel Davenport give able support. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also exceptional and it helps to lend gravitas to the proceedings.

When watching Masada one can honestly say that they don’t make them like they used to. Grand performances, beautiful locations, a thoughtful script and attentive pacing give the series a certain amount of class. It’s a shame that director Boris Sagal died shortly after making this series as he could have gone on to have had an impressive second wind during the 80’s mini-series boom.

When one thinks of Peter O’Toole you tend to think of Lawrence of Arabia or Caligula. Well, Masada is a happy medium – Epic, Political and Roman, but with none of the hanky panky.