A Persona Carved in Stone
On-Screen and Off, Charlton Heston Embodied a High-Minded Code

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

He was the hawk.

He soared. In fact, everything about him soared. His shoulders soared, his cheekbones soared, his brows soared. Even his hair soared.

And for a good two decades, Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at 84, was the ultimate American movie star. In a time when method actors and ethnic faces were gradually taking over, Heston remained the last of the ramrod-straight, flinty, squinty, tough-as-old-hickory movie guys.

He and his producers and directors understood his appeal, and used it for maximum effect on the big Technicolor screen. Rarely a doubter, never a coward, inconceivable as a shirker, he played men of granite virtue no matter the epoch. He played commanders, biblical prophets, Jewish heroes, tough-as-nails cowpokes, calm aviators, last survivors, quarterbacks and a president or two.

Later in his life, he took that stance into politics, becoming president of the National Rifle Association just when anti-gun attitudes were reaching their peak. Pilloried and parodied, lampooned and bullied, he never relented, he never backed down, and in time it came to seem less an old star's trick of vanity than an act of political heroism. He endured, like Moses. He aged, like Moses. And the stone tablet he carried had only one commandment: Thou shalt be armed. It can even be said that if the Supreme Court in June finds a meaning in the Second Amendment consistent with NRA policy, that he will have died just short of the Promised Land -- like Moses.

Was he a great actor? Many think not, and few would rank him with contemporaries like Brando, Dean, even Widmark or Wayne. But at the same time his talent was much underrated, as it frequently is for people who enjoy the blessed gift of great beauty. For the purposes of the movie industry in the '50s, at the height of its patriotism and Western-centrism, he was a perfect fit and always gave solid, professional work. Can anyone imagine either "The Ten Commandments" or "Ben-Hur" without him?

And he was in a number of first-rate and even a few great movies. His greatest film, 1958's "Touch of Evil," featured Heston as a Mexican narcotics detective, probably his biggest stretch and not really an outstanding performance. But he was invaluable in getting Universal to put up the money for Orson Welles's great shaggy dog. Its greatness may be incidental to Heston's performance, but its existence certainly isn't incidental to his behind-the-scenes efforts.

Then there's "The Ten Commandments," such a perennial that even today, half a century after its creation, it gets a ritual prime-time network unspooling. Nobody ever accused its director, Cecil B. DeMille, of greatness; DeMille was more entrepreneur, logistics expert, visionary and carny barker than true artist. And the movie he made remains a monument to kitsch, particularly the orgy sequence unleashed by Edward G. Robinson. (Now, would you go to an orgy hosted by Edward G. Robinson?) And DeMille's concept of Moses wasn't particularly deep either: he saw the great conduit between man and God as a kind of Mount Rushmore head, given life atop Heston's lanky frame and posed heroically against dramatic skies. The best performance in the picture was by Heston's hair, which grew into a lion's gray mane with Susan Sontag highlights (boy, was that scary!) But he functioned there as he did in "Ben-Hur," essentially as the rock upon which the church of giant '50s pop religioso-amen-chorus moviemaking was built. He may not have really parted the Red Sea, but he got millions to part with their bucks to the greater glory of the big studios -- and that was sermonizing Hollywood could understand.

It's easy to make fun of these two behemoths. Of the two, "Ben-Hur" is vastly the superior and again, it's Heston's natural instincts for the heroic, as opposed to the pompous or the self-dramatizing, that help the movie to work so well. He mastered horse-team driving, no easy thing, for the classic chariot race, many people's choice for the best action sequence in movie history. He looked great in a toga, Roman armor and a Jewish robe; he was able to convey Judah Ben-Hur's suffering, anguish and heroism without overstating it, or fighting the scenery or giving the film an unsavory narcissistic center. In the end, the movie stands for a certain glory and grandeur that have passed from the scene and the screen, except in occasional nostalgic retro-wallows like "Gladiator."

Heston made a number of other extremely good films as well. His favorite was 1968's "Will Penny," a hardscrabble western with director Tom Gries, set in an anti-romantic West of hungry, starving people, inarticulate heroes who never saw the inside of a bathtub. I know it was his favorite film because he sent me a copy after we met at an NRA event many years later. And it was a great performance in a very good film, and it showed what he could do: Who could believe the same man could make you enter the private lives of Michelangelo and Will Penny, genius with chisel and brush, good hand with frying pan, lariat and Winchester?

In fact, his later films let Heston be more actor and less icon. He was always persuasive except in the 1969 football movie "Number One," where slow motion revealed that he lacked a professional athlete's grace and power; he was only big. But in "The Omega Man," "Soylent Green" and "The Last Hard Men," all humble B-movies, he was extremely impressive (in "Soylent" he played a great scene with orgy-master Edward G. Robinson, another woefully underappreciated actor).

But his last great film was probably Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee," in 1965, playing the title role as a Union officer in the Southwest who, short of men, recruits some Confederate cavalrymen (led by Richard Harris) to cross into Mexico in search of an Apache band raiding the frontier. It's got Peckinpah's native grit, insight into male violence and sense of scrubby Western reality, and Senta Berger in a completely ludicrous role as a European doctor (!) in a tiny Mexican village (Hollywood! Don't you love it?). But the real issue is Harris vs. Heston. Harris, desperate for attention, turns into a magnificently neurotic, self-dramatizing, death-wish-driven troubadour of 19th-century "honor," while Heston is stuck in the thankless role as the practical military guy with a hard problem to solve. In other words, Harris is Doc Holliday, poor Chuck the dreary Wyatt Earp. Interpretations will vary, possibly driven by political considerations, and maybe I'm in the bag for the big guy, but I give it to Chuck on points in the late rounds.

One of his earliest films was a noir titled "Dark City," but his face and frame were entirely too free of neurosis for the world of film noir. In almost no time, he moved to center ring roles -- "The Greatest Show on Earth," as a circus boss in 1952, for DeMille. By 1953 he was Buffalo Bill Cody in "Pony Express," his first iconic role. It just seemed to get better and better, and certainly by the time of "The Ten Commandments" he had arrived. That role also cemented him in place as Mr. Monument to the Great Western Way.

If you pine for some hint of scandal or even minor weakness, Heston's life isn't the place to look. He got married early (to Lydia Clarke), stayed married, had kids and seemed never to make the gossips.

In his private life, he was given to follow that strange calling that is half public service and half self-aggrandizement with the distinction frequently blurred. He was a six-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, an early celebrity marcher in the civil rights crusade, and his beloved status in Tinseltown was certainly validated when he received the Academy Awards' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1977.

Why then, it must be asked, did he take the leadership of the NRA, never the most popular of lobbying outfits in Washington? One cynical explanation is that the old star was looking for an audience that would treat him as he had been treated in the late '50s and early '60s, almost as a god.

But the abuse he took! The anger he generated. The fury he absorbed from a Hollywood and a critical community that were turning ever more liberal in the wake of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Good Lord, he didn't need that at all.

The only answer can be: He believed. His had to have been a ramrod sense of the Second Amendment and he never varied from it. Hate his politics or love them, you have to say: There was a man.

When I met him at that NRA event (I am a member; he had read some of my novels), I was disappointed. He was -- no other word will do -- old. He had an old man's stooped posture and an extremely tentative way of speaking, as if clarity were an issue. His features, once so mythic, now seemed fragile, draped with a loose parchment of delicate, spotted skin. He didn't walk so much as shuffle, as if he were already wearing those hospital paper shoes; it was as if he had a walker with an oxygen tank attached.

We exchanged cordialities and banalities (can't remember a word of it), and then it was time for him to address the crowd. He shuffled slowly into the big room, and the spotlight came on him, and it was as if with each step he tossed off a decade. His shuffle became a stride and then almost a strut. His posture went from the question mark of age to the exclamation point of youth. His lungs filled, revealing the full breadth of his wide shoulders. His neck turned iron, his chin came aloft, his vision sharpened, and the years just fell away like leaves. When he spoke he boomed in Moses' triumphant baritones, delivering the Tablets to the believers.

I thought: Good for Chuck. Magnificent to the end.

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