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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Moses and Ben-Hur (1923-2008)

So, if you have been paying attention at all, then you have known for days how things are going to go down. My riveting account of how I spent my Easter holidays will be postponed at least one more week. There is no way that I am not going to use this space to reflect on the life and work of Charlton Heston, who died on Saturday.

With Heston, there are at least three facets to consider when evaluating his legacy. There is, of course, the man himself, and there are also the movie icon and the political figure. It was no surprise that, in news accounts of his passing, the two key points mentioned up front were invariably 1) the Oscar he won for the title role in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (he also received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1978) and 2) his advocacy for personal gun rights. I can’t really argue with that news judgment, but I am glad that several of the reports I heard also mentioned prominently that Heston was a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in the 1963 march on Washington. The man was too talented and too complex to be remembered as a stereotype, as Michael Moore attempted when ambushing him in Bowling for Columbine. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, in appraising Heston’s movie roles the other morning, noted that, while such movies as Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green explore “what seem like a liberal’s nightmares,” they also “imply a world in which you never know when you might need a gun.”

Much of Heston’s personal charm stemmed from the fact that, despite playing the quintessential larger-than-life roles—from the heroic to the biblical—he never seemed to take himself too seriously. In interviews, he always exuded a perfectly rational perspective on his work and his public image. Indeed, this was exemplified in one of his last screen appearances, in which he donned ape makeup to play a character with a fetish for weapons in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. Not many actors in Heston’s position would have been so willing or good-natured to lampoon their own image. (He did a similar turn in the 2001 comedy misfire Town & Country.)

I can remember quite clearly watching Franklin J. Schaffner’s original version of Planet of the Apes back in 1968 in Bakersfield’s Fox Theater with my best friend Eric. The role as the human astronaut hero required Heston to do many strenuous action scenes with little but rags dangling from his lithe body. Eric and I marveled appreciatively that a “really old guy” like Heston (he was in his late 40s at the time) could be in such marvelous physical shape. But to watch Heston in the movies was not only to be thrilled as a spectator but to be made to feel inadequate as a male. His solid jaw, his supremely confident gaze, his impeccable physique and his richly deep voice all combined to make him seem like the ultimate personification of manhood.

One of my favorite Heston movie moments was in the latter stretch of Airport 1975. A 747 has been struck by a small airplane in midair, leaving the cockpit with no roof and a crew that is dead or incapacitated. Miraculously, the plane is somehow still flying. Heston is lowered into the cockpit by helicopter and somehow has to pilot the massively damaged aircraft to a safe landing. The whole setup is preposterous, but somehow, when Heston puts his hands on the controls and grits his teeth, we actually believe that he can do this. Does that mean he was a great actor? Well, no, although I believe that he was. It means he was a true movie star—the like of which we really don’t see anymore.

That silly Airport sequel was not the only disaster movie that Heston made during the genre’s heyday in the 1970s. Another memorable clunker was the gimmicky Earthquake, accompanied in its original screenings by the annoying Sensurround. In that one, Heston played the main hero who was, of course, the only person in Los Angeles aware that a massive earthquake was inevitable, while everyone else was happy to keep putting up shoddily built structures on the cheap. The 50-year-old actor had an age-appropriate wife in Ava Gardner (three years his junior), but he was carrying on with a Canadian woman 19 years younger (Geneviève Bujold), and his father-in-law (Lorne Green) was only eight years his senior. In an interview with Terry Gross, which NPR’s Fresh Air replayed this week, Heston explained helpfully and matter-of-factly that the reason that the disaster movies always had all-star casts was that, with so many characters and plotlines for the audience to keep track of, there needed to be plenty of familiar faces to be able to keep things straight. And Heston’s face (or sheer presence) was not one that we were likely to confuse with anybody else’s.

In the end, the movie role that always stuck most closely to Heston (one rarely heard him mentioned by a comedian or talk show host without it being referred to) was that of Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. In his more than hundred screen roles over six decades, he played not only high-profile biblical figures (John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, the fictional Judah Ben-Hur, even the voice of God in the 1990 comedy Almost an Angel) but also a striking number of prominent historical figures: Andrew Jackson (The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer), El Cid, Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy), General Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Khartoum), Marc Antony (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), Cardinal Richelieu (The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers), Henry VIII (Crossed Swords), Sir Thomas Moore (the 1988 TV version of A Man for All Seasons) and Brigham Young (The Avenging Angel). Indeed, Heston was one veteran actor whose movie roles continue to dwell so strongly in our collective mind that we barely recall that he had a role on Dynasty.

Other movies worth remembering include the westerns The Big Country, Major Dundee and Will Penny. And he starred in at least one film classic in the most artistic sense of the word. He played a Mexican narcotics agent whose honeymoon goes awry in Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, A Touch of Evil. Frequently cited for playing the single most unconvincing Mexican character in any movie ever, Heston was perhaps miscast. But that didn’t stop the film from becoming an amazing thing to watch or Heston from compelling our undivided attention, as always.

I suppose a lot of people, when they hear Charlton Heston’s voice in their heads, will hear him yelling, “My cold, dead hands!” (quoting a popular bumper sticker) with a rifle held aloft at an NRA convention. But I will always hear him giving one of the most eloquent and poignant of public good-byes when he announced in in 2002 that he had Alzheimer’s. “If you see a little less spring to my step,” he said, “if your name fails to leap to my lips, you’ll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway.”

I will also hear the anguished cry of the futuristic hero lamenting the foolishness of humanity in more than one powerful movie climax. When he cried, “You’ve gotta tell them! Soylent Green is people!” or (in Planet of the Apes) “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!", his was the voice of every one of us who has ever been overcome by the apparent sheer stupidity or malevolence of the human race.

-S.L., 10 April 2008

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