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Saturday, January 16, 2016

MASADA (1981)

The hefty mini-series of the ‘70s & ‘80, once regular players on the Big Three Broadcasters, now look bloated, a little threadbare or tuckered out. A quick peek at ROOTS/’77 says it all and explains remake talk. Similar objections could be made against MASADA, a six-hour haul about the Roman Empire’s siege of a thousand Jewish Zealots holding out in a naturally protected mountain fortress. Yet, the film has aged better than many of its ilk since its fact-inspired story (a generation after Christ) remains both compelling on its own and loaded with contemporary relevance even after 35 years of much altered Mid-Eastern politics. It’s also considerably better acted than most, especially by Peter O’Toole’s glamorous wreck of a Roman commander, unhappily charged with taking out one more insurrection getting in the way of Pax Romana. As his stubborn, rebellious, bearded Jewish adversary, Peter Strauss struggles to give life to the modern agnostic the script hopes to sop off as a character, occasionally sinking into Charlton Heston-lite mannerisms, but just as often finding simple, effective line readings. Good support too from actors like Anthony Quayle & Barbara Carrera, respectively engineer & mistrustful lover to O’Toole.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: . . . by you! Here’s how. Director Boris Sagal keeps things moving & orderly, but his compositions don’t exactly teem with dramatic life. Help out by cropping the film from its original Academy Ratio of 1.33:1 up to 1.85:1 for a far more dynamic picture. (Careful, not the anamorphic 16x9 setting, sometimes called FILL, but a straight OVERSCAN increase.) What’s lost thru frame enlargement is insubstantial, perhaps because the film was also designed to play in a shortened theatrical cut abroad. (See poster.) That said, the final reel does lose much in the cropping, so jump back for the last ten minutes.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Something of a family affair, director Sagal cast his son Joey in a little role and even found a spot as dialogue coach for wife Marge Champion Sagal. Yep, Gower Champion’s ex.

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