ABC is nervously nurturing the Big Surprise of 1981 for television viewers. "Masada," still officially unscheduled but probably due to air next February, may prove to be one of the most powerful, popular, meaningful -- and possibly controversial -- mini-series ever aired. In the rough-cut version I saw -- which, I have been warned by ABC, is still subject to revision -- the Palestinian-Israeli analogy is clearly drawn in relation to the Roman-Judean situation around AD 73.
"Masada" is bound to reactivate the continuing criticism of TV as a potentially disruptive and distorting element in our civilization's image of itself. But it should also open up a whole new area of speculation: Can entertainment television help to solve international problems?
There has been much criticism of the potential for distortion in the mass perception of certain important events of the past because of the way they have been portrayed in TV docu-dramas which take advantage of literary license to twist facts to conform to dramatic requirements of an entertainment script. It happens all the time, and it is still difficult to predict the long-range effect upon future generations of such shows as those which dramatized the Kennedy administration Cuban crisis, the Eisenhower-Truman relationship, the negotiations at Potsdam.
Will such oversimplifications be rejected out of hand by current generations, just as my own generation rejected the textbook fables about George Washington and the cherry tree?
Because of the bitterly controversial confrontations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization today, partisan interpretations of the "Masada" script are bound to cause heated arguments. But "normal" distortions for dramatic impact aside, "Masada" has the potential to help assuage the international strife centered around the Israeli-Palestinian question.
It is exciting to speculate now on what would happen if ABC could force Prime Minister Begin of Israel and Chairman Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization to sit down together and view "Masada," which recounts its own sometimes oversimplified version of the final days of the Judean Zealots and the Essenes in their losing battle with the Roman occupiers of Judea (now part of the West Bank).
In a year that has so far brought the American TV viewer such high-quality fare as NBC's "Shogun" and CBS's three-hour special "Playing for Time," ABC still holds its own strongest weapon in the offing: this eight- hour mini-series , based upon Ernest Gunn's novel "The Antagonists" and historical records, with a surprisingly literate script by Joel Oliansky.
Shot on location at Masada, in the Israeli desert, the $18 million blockbuster directed by Boris Sagal stars two actors at their prime, Peter Strauss and Peter O'Toole. It is a beautiful production, filled with the strength and vigor and beauty of Judea, boasting not only stunning scenery but ironic relevance. It is deliciously irreverent in spots, poking fun at itself as it "creatively" investigates supposedly historical incidents. It is as if Cecil B. de Mille had made "I, Claudius."
"Masada is overflowing with heroic "ready-when-you- are, C. B." maneuvers designed to hold huge audiences. And it has, surprisingly, thought-provoking analogies like the resistance-fighting Zealots (some might say "terrorists"), under the leadership of Eleazar ben Yair, who make their last stand against the Roman Tenth Legion, led by Gen. Cornelius Flavius Silva.
Also surprisingly, for a series obviously designed to memorialize the heroic last stand of the Jewish Zealots and the orthodox Essenes in Judea against the occupying Romans, I found myself very often identifying the ancient Jews with the modern Palestinians, the ancient Romans with the contemporay Israelis. I came away feeling that this mini-series could do immeasurable good if some electronic superpower could force both Begin and Arafat to pay attention . . . to view themselves and their profound beliefs in the changing perspective of time . . . .
"Masada" could not help but lead these two men into perceiving something of themselves in the two protagonists, as they watch the struggles of the two sincere believers in their own causes battling one another at Masada to an inevitable tragic conclusion. Both Eleazar and Silva reluctantly recognize some validity in each other's cause and claims, hold fast to their own deep-seated beliefs, secretly admire some qualities in the other, but remain unwilling to come to what must eventually be a compromise solution.
When Masada has fallen and all the Zealots have committed suicide, Roman General Silva (as played magnificently by Peter O'Toole) wanders about the mountaintop stronghold, grieving over the sight of his supposed enemies, all dead.
"This is stupidity itself," he moans. "What in the name of common sense does a thing like this prove? A leader must know not only who is enemy but who is friend. I would never have let this happen . . . . I waited too long before putting the proposition . . . . A gesture was needed . . . . With us, it was a chance to build something good here; without us this is how you always end up, killing each other, killing yourselves . . . . I should have put the proposition sooner . . . . Nobody is listening anymore."
In Rome, where Masada is hailed as a victory, General Silva groans sadly, "Victory? We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea!"
In the early version of the mini-series which I saw (and which may or may not be the version finally aired), there is a contemporary prologue and epilogue which show modern Israeli soldiers at Masada being inducted into the Army, swearing allegiance to Israel. A wooden sign is set on fire, blazing into the Judean skies the words "Masada Shall Not Fall Again!"
Of course, neither Palestinians nor Israelis are going to be completely satisfied with this film. Probably both will recognize only the analogy that best suits their own beliefs and purposes.
But is it too naive to hope that "Masada" can somehow have a constructive influence upon that Middle East dilemma?
Is it too optimistic to hope that commercial television, which so many believe has been mainly a moral blight upon our society, may yet prove to be a healing force?
When "Masada" was screened for me at ABC New York headquarters, during the climatic scene on the summit of Masada the telephone rang in the private screening room. If one searches for ironies, this might be considered almost an ultimate one. It was a representative of Vanessa Redgrave, star of the recent Arthur Miller "Playing for Time" on TV and the film "Julia."
When she won the Oscar for Julia, Miss Redgrave, a fervent supporter of the PLO, had referred to the "Zionist hoodlums" who had supposedly attempted to prevent her from winning the award. Although generally regarded and tolerated in England as just another charming British political eccentric, Miss Redgrave has become, to some, a worldwide symbol of the politicization and sometimes off- beat commitment of "beautiful people."
Earlier in the week I had spoken with her agent and explained that it was hard to believe that an actress who conveyed such compassion for Jews and humanity so superbly in so many roles could not have been somehow softened in her anti-Zionist attitude. I told her agent that if there had been some sort of rapprochement, I would like to speak with her when and if she came to New York.
Well, she was now in New York on unpublicized business (to discuss playing the part of Sarah Bernhardt in a Broadway production, to try to sell her pro-PLO film, "The Palestinian," to American TV, etc.). She had agreed to talk to me. We arranged to meet the following (Saturday) morning.
The next day, at her modest suite in a slightly run- down Central Park West hotel, I found Miss Redgrave to be charming, poised, untheatrically beautiful, intelligent . . . but totally unaffected politically by her recent roles. She remains absolutely committed to the Palestinian -- and the PLO -- cause, completely convinced that Israel is a fascist state run by fascist Zionist leaders. She denies she is anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish, only anti-Zionist. She equates the current Israeli actions against the Palestinians with the Nazi crimes against the Jews and seems to regard the words of Chairman Arafat unquestioningly. And she is so convinced of the righteousness of her cause that she told me she would be willing to go Israel to present the case personally to the Israeli people. But only if invited, she said.
Miss Redgrave, who struck me as a frozen-in-the-1930s ideologue, describes herself as a "Trotskyite," and tends to interpret all political events along Trotskyite lines.
So when Miss Redgrave wins this year's Emmy for "Playing for Time," as is very likely, TV viewers can probably expect another anti-Zionist barrage.