"Five thousand men against 900 -- that is a spectacle!" ZEALOT LEADER TO HIS MEN IN "MASADA"

WE ARE not likely in the forseeable future to see a more intelligent epic than "Masada" -- not on any screen of any size. ABC's monumental eight-hour mini-series based on one of history's most famous sieges may not be the glory of all the ages or the viewing experience of a lifetime, as the current promotional rooty-toot has it, but it is smart, handsome, frequently riveting, richly textured and unmistakably impressive.

The $23-million production, which begins tonight at 9 on Channel 7 (continuing nightly at 9 through Wednesday) depicts the legendary standoff between Rome and a community of rebellious subjects circa 73 A.D. On top of a mountain called Masada, which still stands as a shrine to freedom, 960 Jews, spurred on by a small group called Zealots, defy the might and oppression of the state: massed troops at the foot of the butte, 1,300 feet below.

A seemingly impregnable natural fortress between the Judean desert and the shore of the Dead Sea, the mountain finally is conquered by ancient technology, and as the Romans are poised to demolish the gate, the Zealots persuade their comrades -- men, women and children -- to commit a final act of insanity and self-destruction that will rob the conqueror of his victory.

One man, Joel Oliansky, wrote, and one man, Boris Sagal, directed the entire eight-hour film; it wasn't farmed out to members of a committee, and it has the gloss and density of a real movie. It even has a real movie star: Peter O'Toole, who is magnificently and charismatically seedy as Flavius Silva, leader of the Roman forces; this performance is a wry, worldly, sardonic portrait of the aloof and aging autocrat, the kind of figure whose days in power are always numbered, and who knows it.

The ABC Television Network has, predictably enough, embarked upon an exhaustive and intensive promotional campaign to make America "Masada"-mad. Supermarket aisles are clogged with displays of the paperback book. Thousands of viewer's guides have been prepared for distribution in schools (said to be a secret of "Shogun's" ratings success). According to the trade press, ABC research learned that 92 percent of the American public has no idea what "Masada" is (they may think it is a new Japanese car). And so a half-hour documentary on the filming of the epic was distributed to ABC stations for their use; Channel 7 aired it last week.

In fact, the promotional effort was launched two years ago when filming began; it only reaches full throttle now. The network may consider the show a hard sell because of the downbeat ending, and it may be seen as a test of strength for the mini-series as a form. But at the proverbial bottom line, and all the hoopla aside, "Masada" provides sufficient, sometimes exquisite, reward for the amount of money, effort and viewing time invested. At times it is almost miraculously good.

Like "Shogun," "Masada" could have been told in much less time, but need not be. Oliansky and Sagal have filled out the story with enough complications and ramifications to keep it absorbing for much of its running time and genuinely meaningful as a parable of conflict between liberty and order. The promos aren't fibbing when they say the story speak to the root questions of human freedom and the struggles of peoples to assert their independence.

Based on a novel, "The Antagonists," by Ernest K. Gann, the film opens with present-day Israeli soldiers doing maneuvers on the awesome mountain, and narrator Richard Basehart leading into the flashback by saying, "A young Israeli soldier up here has to think back on how it all began." It all begins, in this version, with a Roman raid on Jewish village, filmed not so differently from the way DeMille might have filmed it; spears through chests, and that sort of thing.

In tonight's chapter, the stage is set for the confrontation. Gen. Flavius Silva thinks he is about to forsake the Godforsaken desert where he has been stationed, and after one of his own men attempts to assassinate him, he growls, "You stupid bastards, it's almost over! If I can't take you home, who can?" But his plans for a truce with the Zealots are considered unacceptable in Rome, where Cesar is waging the politico's war of self-preservation at any cost.

In part two, the Jews take to the mountain, and the Romans must fend off their arrows from above and the rigors of the desert as well. (The production company fought the same rigors, if not the same arrows; temperatures during filming rose to 124 degrees, but there is magnificent scenery and topographical authenticity to show for it.)

Among the other assets unique to "Masada" is a special-effects budget, and one of the great modern effects chefs, Albert Whitlock, to supervise it. Most of his handiwork is evident in later chapters, when the Romans build a giant ramp and it towering priapic battering ram with which to invade the mountaintop fortress, but Whitlock also sets Jerusalem on fire in early shots of chapter one; it's eerily pretty, if patently unreal.

Unfortunately, the drama tends to dwindle into a mere mano a mano between Silva and the rebel leader in parts three and four, with a corresponding drop-off in dramatic dimension.

Before we meet O'Toole, we meet his adversary, and one of the major handicaps of the film, Peter Strauss, the TV actor, as Zealot leader Eleazar. Strauss is never O'Toole's equal; he has trouble getting a gram's worth of conviction out of even such simple lines as "Imperial tax, imperial plunder!" He doesn't begin to suggest the galvanizing fanaticism of a man who could finally, in the last chapter, inspire his people to the ultimate sacrifice.

The unfortunate effect of this is that the oppressor becomes a much more attractive figure than the oppressed. But Oliansky's screenplay, to its credit, is concerned with subtleties and shades of gray anway. The contest is not reduced to good guy-bad guy terms; we see the cynical ugliness in Strauss' Eleazar as well as the enigmatic dissipation and aspirations toward honorability in O'Toole's Silva.

As has happened many times since in history, the crisis at the mountain is precipitated by conflicting expediencies. The film's portrayal of Roman politics, and Timothy West's wary and pragmatic Caesar (Vespasian, as it happens), makes the situation just metaphorical enough. Here we have all of politics -- corporate, international, domestic -- epitomized in one agonizing catastrophe. Concessions to the Jews that could have averted the final tragedy and the long stalemate can't be made, according to this rendition of the story, because of political machinations back in Rome that have nothing, really, to do with it.

Nothing that takes eight hours on television can long endure without a little sex thrown in. Representing that indispensable element is Barbara Carrera as a Jewish woman of trampled virtue who eventually becomes mistress to Silva. Carrera may still look too much the fashion model, and viewers may be too conscious of her parade through various Outfits, but she does bring dark, mercurial allure to the part, and she does finally get a big scene near the film's end, when she is given the option of leaving Silva before the final bloodbath.

Additionally notable in the cast are David Warner as the scheming political weasel Falco and Anthony Quayle as the dedicated technician Gallus, who sees the battering ram's construction as an exercise in ingenuity and the conquest of physical obstacles rather than the creation of an instrument of death.

The first two chapters are by far the strongest, despite the horror of the conclusion. In fact, Oliansky and Sagal did not find a way to shoot that ending effectively. They are unable at this crucial point to lift the story into myth, and the way it's been filmed, the mass suicide of the Jews may simply and irrelevantly remind viewers of the Jonestown massacre.

But in the earlier chapters both writer and director show a keen sense for detail and dramatic validity:

When the Zealots raid a Roman-held village in which older, conciliatory Jews are living, one young rebel encounters his father, who advocates peaceful coexistence with the Romans, as the son is about to torch a building. p"No, father, you're not dreaming," says Ephraim, son of Levi. Levi slaps Ephraim's face in outrage.

"Is that my shadow, that willow twig?" O'Toole asks rhetorically when he begins to discern the toll on his body and soul that this grubby duty in the desert will take on him. His last lines in the film are beautifully delivered: "A victory? We have won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shore of a poisoned sea."

During an early meeting between foes, O'Toole mentions he is building a villa near Rome and extends to Strauss a diplomatically polite invitation to visit it. "I will never come to Rome," says Strauss. "They all say that," O'Toole answers, with such slyness as to make the line seem terribly portentous.

One of Sagal's elegant little touches occurs in part two, when his camera zooms out through a hole in the roof of L'Toole's tent into the night sky, that descends upon the Zealots on the mountain high above. They are all of them looking at the same stars. A little later O'Toole recites from the suicide note left by his wife: "I want to look down at the stars reflected in the sea and join them," she had said.

There are even opportunities for humor, and Oliansky takes them, mainly whenever the Roman priests sacrifice a goat as a way of blessing the day's carnage, or the day's ramp-building, or the day's sit-and-waiting, as the case may be.The priests invoke whatever omen is handy to uphold the credentials of the goat in question, such as, "It bleated when a flock of birds crossed the sky at sunrise." And another goat bites the dust, its organs to be examined for any sign of ominous taint.

As the tension wanes in parts three and four, the story becomes a simpler and simpler matter of two strong wills caught in hopeless clash. If Strauss were a more dynamic performer and less given to cold poses, this might be enough, but O'Toole must carry most of the weight, and even his dispeptic old-soldier routine begins to lose its caustic punch. However, it is likely that viewers will be crried forward by the momentum of the first four hours, and having committed that much time, will want to see the story through to its conclusion.

Because of the actors' strike last fall, the TV season isn't officially over yet, but "Shogun" and "Masada" do stand like two towering lanndmarks of excellence at either end of it. They may stand out all the more for the arid mediocrity of the week-in, week-out, ritual fare, but they would probably loom large even if the season had been an embarrassment of riches (as TV seasons rarely are).

Although such marathon productions may lapse into dramatic stasis as they tread on and on through the hours and traverse yawning commercial breaks, projects like "Masada," unlike almost everything else on commercial television, foster a desire to know more about the world -- about history, about other cultures, about other people. The film moves from the vast to the particular in a way that theatrical films no longer often do. Perhaps most practgically of all, "Masada" proves to be a telling worthy of itsd tale; it is full of stirring occurrences, astute asides and applicable universalities.

It's doubtful there are four current theatrical films a moviegoer could see on four successive nights that would be as consistently engrossing and commanding as "Masada."

After an Academy Awards ceremony in which Hollywood bent over backward to lionize what was primarily an assortment of gloomy mediocrities -- the defiantly "personal" film that is taking over what used to be an entertainment business -- mainstream triumphs like "Shogun" and "Masada" look all the more substantial. Both are based on the kind of material that has ceased to interest filmmakers, or filmgoers; the romantic foreign adventure and the Bible-era epic are not considered remotely hot properties or feasible undertakings any more (unless one considers "Star Wars" a romantic foreign adventure).

One would think the movies would get bigger and bigger to counter the competition of television, but instead they get narrower and narrower, and for two years in a row the Oscar winner for Best Picture has been the kind of hig-toned, psychological domestic donnybrook that, ironically or not, was a mainstay of live drama during the Golden Age of television. All that's really new is a dirty word here or there.

Television is ill-suited to epic scale, but "Masada" succeeds because it makes spectacle subordinate to ideas, more effectively really than most of the old Hollywood biblicals, which had to flaunt their budgets and sets to the eventual exclusion of dramatic coherence and conviction. Whether "Masada" equals, or eclipses, the high ratings for "Shogun," it looms as another victory for TV movies over movie movies. The movies are up there on a mountaintop, and television has got the mountain surrounded. It is only a matter of time.