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TV performance of decade in superb 'Masada' series

"A rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea" -- that's how Roman Gen. Cornelius Flavius Silva described the spoils of the Roman victory over the Jewish Zealots and Essenes on the anvil-shaped rock called Masada, 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea in AD 73.

Now, 1,900 years later, in what is one of TV's most stirring mini-series ever to be aired, ABC is retelling the amazing story of how 960 Judeans, encamped on the mountain fortress, held off 5,000 Romans for four years -- and then, when defeat was inevitable, committed suicide rather than submit to the slavery and other indignities that probably awaited them.

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"Masada" (ABC, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is TV viewing for those who don't like their TV handed to them on a silver platter, complete with popcorn. It is a kind of thinking-man's mini-series.

Although at moments it appears to be a weird and wonderful Roman-Western (complete with some violence and gore because of the nature of the material -- but handled with delicacy for the most part), it is actually a uniquely literate , sometimes irreverant, ironically relevent entertainment. It is filled with the colorful panoply of the period and the area (it was shot mostly on location in the Judean desert, where Masada has now become the symbol of Jewish resistance).

But most of all, "Masada" is a kind of muscular morality play, a thrilling retelling of the vigorous tale of a people so convinved of the validity of their cause, so enamored of freedom, so dedicated to their own morality that, when the final moment of apparent defeat arrived, they were able to do great harm to their enemy's cause by withholding the ultimate victory from him.

If some viewers will find echoes of Masada in the recent Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy, it must be kept in mind that Masada was an intellectual response to a real situation, while Jonestown apparently represented an irrational response to a madman's fantasy. Only in the immediate results are the two similar.

Aside from the suprisingly literate script by Joel Oliansky and an intricately skillful directing job by Boris Sagal, "Masada" boasts the TV performance of the decade in the portrayal of Roman General Silva by Peter O'Toole. In creating a multifaceted anti-hero, he manages totally to overshadow an otherwise adequate portrayal by protoganist Peter Strauss (as Eleazar, the leader of the Zealots).

I first viewed an early version of "Masada" in October and wrote about it in glowing terms then. As I look back at my reactions now, I find that I declared that "it is as if Cecil B. De Mille had made 'I, Claudius."

Well, I viewed the final version recently and found that my judgment had not changed at all. "Masada" remains for TV a unique adventure in information-entertainment, complete with millions of dollars worth of ready-when-you-are-C.B. special effects, comparable to the Ben-Hurish extravaganzas of Hollywood's yesteryears.

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The first two-hour segment takes quite a bit of concentration before the viewer manages to sort out the good guys from the bad guys -- part of the problem is that the characters are so finely drawn that nobody is all good or all bad. But I found the mini-series a veritable arsenal of information about the period it portrays. And I enjoyed every moment of the learning experience.

If I have any reservations about the scrip, based upon the novel "The Antagonists," by Ernest Gunn, it concerns the wraparound segments which show modern Israeli troops arriving at Masada for maneuvers at the beginning, then flash back to Roman times, followed by the contemporary Israeli swearing-in of its troops on top of Masada with the stirring words "Masada shall not fall again" blazing into the Judean skies on a wooden Hebrew sign.

For a series which portrays Jews so sympathetically, it seems just a bit too propagandistic (and unnecessary) to underline the points already made. However, some viewers may find themselves picking up the clearly indicated analogy betweeh the Romans of AD 73 and the Israelis of the year 1981. Some politically oriented viewers may also compare the stubbornness of the Jewish Zealots of those days with today's determined Palestinians.

Especially revelant might be the final moving soliloquy of the "victorious" General Silva as he wanders among the Jewish bodies: "This is stupidity itself . . . I should have put the proposition sooner . . . nobody is listening anymore."

ABC, however, hopes that 100 million Americans will be listening for all or at least part of the four nights. The network has spent millions of dollars on promotion for "Masada" (to make certain that potential audiences are aware that Masada is not "just another African tribe like the Masai"). Also spent was as an estimated $23 million on the production itself (mostly on intricate hardware and woodware such as the ominous catapults and battering rams as well as a complete reconstructed Masada on the site).

"Masada," the mini-series, is, like the conquered Masada itself, "a rock in the middle of a wasteland" -- a TV wasteland.

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