A Persona Carved in Stone
On-Screen and Off, Charlton Heston Embodied a High-Minded Code
Monday, April 7, 2008; Page C01
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.