There was so much to Charlton Heston, he was masculine, intelligent and charming. Onscreen he had a dynamism and vitality that few actors have. He was passionate about acting and an astute judge of people. Today, October the 4th, is his birthday.
In his book Manliness, T Harvey Mansfield talks of manliness as a quality that men have. That man have more or less of the quality and that it is possible to change the amount of manliness. In his time Heston was an icon of manliness, playing the man who stands for all others, who is willing to stand for justice. Imposing, dignified, handsome and sincere, it was as if he was made to play roles that defined male greatness.
Cast as Judah Ben-Hur in the movie of the same name, Charlton Heston showed the qualities that would make him a movie star. Heston brought strength and nobility to the role, and a dogged determination to do what was right. Heston’s great strength as an actor was that he could make us believe that a man of principle could be stronger than evil or coercion and win through. He did this by having guts, by enduring pain and defeat, by never letting go of his goal.
For an actor who played such physical roles, Charlton Heston was a very cerebral actor. In every role he looked for what made the character different, what made the man real and tried to bring that to the screen. For me this is what makes Heston’s movies so watchable and in some cases classic. His portrayals of great men are made real by his revelation of the man inside the public persona.
He did it again with El Cid, which is one of his greatest roles. He plays Rodrigo Diaz (The Cid), one of the great figures of Spanish history, the medieval knight who drives muslim oppressors from his homeland of Grenada. Heston’s Diaz is a good man, without malice, who faces the unavoidable truth. If he wants to be free, he must fight. So Diaz becomes an almost Job-like figure, estranged from the woman he loves, enduring pain, sorrow and trial by combat, in the quest for freedom. The movie works because of Heston. Only a man of such obvious strength can convince us that he will defeat such overwhelming odds.
Charlton Heston was a life-long student of classical theatre and a passionate believer in the classic Shakespearean dramas. He believed that an actor had to be able to play the classic Shakespearean roles. Heston saw Shakespeare’s roles as the test of an actor, playing Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Antony (and Cleopatra). Most notably he played these roles on stage as well as in the movies. He was that rare thing, a true movie star who was also an actor. And it is this depth that he brings to the epic movies he was cast in. His Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid, all have a Shakespearean grandeur that make them compelling to watch.
His love of movies did not blind him to the difficulties and contradictions of their making. His journals reveal a wry acceptance of the fact that movies are a collaborative undertaking and that only persistence of vision gets makes for great movies, and sometimes not even then. His own passion drove him to become a producer, in order to make movies that he believed in.
For my own part I am grateful for his passion, because in doing so he gave us three of my favourite movies.
The first is The Warlord, a movie that has been completely overlooked and is very undervalued. It took Heston four years to bring Warlord to the screen. He nurtured it from its beginnings in a stage play, paying for a screenplay to be written and finally putting up a large amount of his own money to get it into production. The Warlord is the tale of an impoverished Norman knight, sent to rule a wild and (secretly) pagan province. Heston got Franklin Schaffner (later to direct Patton: Lust for Glory) to direct the movie. This was an act of genius, as Schaffner was a poet of telling stories about manly men. He made Heston’s knight a hero, a warrior of iron disciple who does not know his own self. Under Schaffner’s assured direction Heston reveals a complex man drawn into a journey into his own soul. This is a superb movie, dark, dramatic and exciting. For me, it is Heston’s finest performance.
The second movie was Will Penny. It was Charlton Heston’s persistent advocacy of the screenplay by Tom Gries, that got the movie made. Here is Heston as an aging cowboy who meets a woman trapped by winter snow, in a cabin in the wilderness. It is a subtle, sensitive performance, powerful and knowing and a thrill to watch. Will Penny did not make a lot of money at the box office but was hugely well received by movie-lovers and is now viewed as a minor masterpiece. Heston playing a role in a minor key is as compelling as the fire and thunder of his Moses in the 10 Commandments and WIll Penny anticipate the realistic Western genre by several years.
The third movie is The Omega Man, A solitary man tries to survive in a world overrun by vampire-like homicidal mutants who only come out as night to kill the remaining humans. Heston plays a military scientist, solitary and besieged, hunted by these creatures. Heston’s Robert Neville is both a Christ-like figure and a lonely man, the two sides of his personality co-existing in one of the most frightening worlds that Hollywood has ever created.
I think that Heston’s respect for the material is important here. Back in the 70’s Charlton Heston was one of the few major stars who treated Science Fiction stories/movies with respect and in this movie it really shows. There are some wonderful scenes in this movie, in which Heston takes his masculine warrior persona and lifts the veil on how horrible it is to be the only man still alive. Omega Man is a good script, tidy direction, but it is Heston’s performance that elevates the movie above the ordinary.
So this is a celebration of a man and an actor, the like of whom we will probably never see again. Charlton Heston’s movies always did exceptionally well in Japan. He once asked a Japanese journalist if he knew why that was. The journalist told him that he (Heston) embodied the four Confucian values of Responsibility, Justice, Courage and Moderation. They got that right.
Thank you Mr Heston, for your intelligence, positive spirit, your love of freedom and the individual and some magnificent movies.
Here are my 10 Favourite Charlton Heston movies.
Heston’s Chrysagon is a Norman knight who knows only war. Commissioned by his lord to protect a province from sea-born raiders, his mettle is tested less by the pirates than by the beautiful pagan woman he encounters. An dventure which goes deeply into what makes a warrior. Richard Boone is marvellous as Bors, Chrysagon’s deadly seargeant at arms.
Heston’s presence dominates this picture. The battles are cleverly staged, the swordplay is clever and exciting and the devious Spanish nobility captivating in their treachery. However Heston’s El Cid is always the centre of the movie, a man imbued with the power to change history.
The chariot race of course. Even today it is one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. But also for Heston’s powerful performance as Ben-Hur, a man who cannot be defeated.
A Touch of Evil
Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a straight-arrow Mexican detective forced to fight Orson Wells corrupt police chief in a Texas border town. Often considered to be Heston’s finest role, he makes Vargas a worthy adversary for Wells. Can good triumph over evil when evil is so much cleverer than good?
The Omega Man
Exciting, beautifully paced and very scary apocalyptic SF movie. As we engage with Robert Neville, the last man alive, we wonder if his own lonliness will kill him before the homicidal mutants can. The Omega Man’s intelligent story and plot integrity make this a really satisfying movie to watch.
The Ten Commandments
Moses as we would believe him to be, a powerful patriarch, tested by his God and by Pharoah. Colourful, inspired and inspiring, a classic Hollywood movie.
As Major Amos Dundee, Charlton Heston gave us the definitive warrior who is lost without a war. Heston keeps us guessing throughout the movie, as to whether Dundee is a man who can put war in perspective or a killer who knows no other trade. A near-masterpiece of a movie, an absolute masterpiece of a performance.
Antony and Cleopatra
Not a popular choice, as it was panned on release. However Heston’s Antony is a classic performance and his direction, if a little over-respectful, does give the play time to “breathe” onscreen. My personal view is that it will be re-appraised and I like it for its unabashed love of the play and the language.
The Three Musketeers
I could not get used to Charlton Heston being the bad guy here. But once I did, I realised he was the heart of the movie. With everybody else playing for knockabout comedy, Heston’s manipulative and powerful cleric gives the movie a solid core that everyone else revolves around. The more I see this movie the more I think it is a great performance.
Planet of the Apes
As directed by Franklin Schaffner, Heston is the essence of masculine power. Beaten, stripped naked and tormented by apes, Heston remains powerful and dignified. A more potent statement of manly power would be hard to find. Franklin Schaffner makes this movie dramatic, hard-edged and brutal. It is hard to think of another science-fiction film that has this level of perception and maturity. Charlton Heston shows us the god-like qualities of the free man.
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