The Glory That is Heston

Behold, His mighty hand.
Today is the birthday of Charlton Heston (1923-2008).

When I was a kid, my third favorite movie (behind The Wizard of Oz and The Poseidon Adventure) was The Ten Commandments (1956). I was an extremely religious kid, and was encouraged to be so, so I watched the film annually when it was broadcast on television with absolute credulity, as though it were a documentary concerning literal, true events (even as my nascent libido was being fanned into existence by the hot scenes between Heston and Anne Baxter. This is why Cecil B. Demille was a genius).

Or was he? Heston as the Jewish lawgiver? Demille said he cast him because of the uncanny resemblance between him (see above) and the famous Michaelangelo sculpture. But although the “look” above may be more in line with what we think of when we think of the actual Moses, when I think of “Heston’s Moses”, what I’m really picturing is Heston: something more like this:

That is, Moses as He-Man, Superhero, and Slave-Chile Hercules. He and Demille collaborated on a reinvention of this semi-historical, semi-mythical figure from our past. They Americanized him. In retrospect, one asks: a macho Moses? Well, okay. Andre Bazin wrote a terrific essay about this peculiar phenomenon, calling Heston an “axiom of cinema”. Meaning, I think, that Heston the movie star acts upon our consciousness on a symbolic, not a naturalistic level. Even a theoretically Judeo-Christian movie like The Ten Commandments is really a kind of Trojan horse for paganism; the real God to be worshipped here, the Idol, the Golden Calf is Heston. (Although I have done plenty of worshipping of Anne Baxter).

Odd to think, a half century after his heyday, that I find myself nostalgic in a way for Heston’s softer edges, for (of all things) his subtlety and humanity. For when I think of his successors I think of wayward progeny run amok. He was replaced as Hollywood’s physical Ubermensch in the 1980s by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the incarnation is hypertrophied, grotesque, a Germanic rather than an American ideal. A beast lacking all sensitivity, Arnold is not (as Heston was) an underdog rising to the occasion. He is an overdog, looking to swat insects. As such, Schwarzenegger represents an unfortunate sea change in American culture. Once we were looking to “make the world safe for democracy,” battling long-established, powerful empires in order to do so.  Now we “take the fight to the enemy” pre-emptively in order to “protect our interests”, invariably against adversaries far weaker and poorer than we are. This is reflected in our movies, where the supposed hero is usually some kind of robot monster who simply mows down those who get in his way and feels nothing about it.

And what of another man of the Right, another maker of Biblical epics? That role has largely been filled by Mel Gibson. But where Heston played Jewish heroes (Ten Commandments, Ben Hur), Gibson is an anti-semite. Where Heston wears the hairshirt and suffers through heroic ordeals, Gibson takes the ritual to sado-massochistic levels. Heston, like any normal person, waited until he was an old man to turn into a cuckoo. Gibson tumbled head first into ranting dementia in the prime of life. Ranting dementia — the coin of the realm in 2012.

Who today has got the heroic dimensions PLUS a moral compass? The Russell Crowe of Gladiator perhaps. (Although I never heard of Heston throwing a telephone at anyone).

I think it was the association of Heston with Biblical heroism that made him transition so well into the films of his career Renaissance of the late 60s and 70s, the tales of Apocalypse and disaster: Planet of the Apes (1968) and its first sequel, Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), and Two Minute Warning (1976). He had already braved plagues, floods and deserts; such trials were nothing new. Even The Greatest Show on Earth [1953] had a train wreck — one of the most realistic in movie history, I might add.

I had the pleasure of hearing him speak once. He introduced (actually spoke at length on) Touch of Evil at the Virginia Film Festival. The film is usually counted among his mis-steps (“Charlton Heston as a Mexican?! Haw-haw!) but though he is woefully miscast, I think perhaps his portrayal is a tad more salutory than that of, oh I don’t know, Eli Wallach’s in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, don’t you think? And without Heston’s judgment and advocacy, we wouldn’t have had Orson Welles’ last studio film, which is a masterpiece of its kind.

Brownface ain’t too hip, but in his favor one can’t help but point out that two years later, Heston was marching with Dr. King for civil rights, in a time when for a Hollywood actor to do so was considered risky. Later, he tacked far to the right, when that too was considered risky for a Hollywood actor. Hiring Welles? Risky. I think the bottom line is that he was a bit of a contrarian, one with a Jeremiah (or, if you must, a Moses) complex. What’s the virtue in preaching to the converted?

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