This morning’s edition of Radio 4’s Broadcasting House chose to mark the death of Charlton Heston with a montage of scenes from his three most iconic films: The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and Planet Of The Apes (1967). These were huge films in every sense, made during the golden age of Hollywood and Charlton Heston was a monolithic presence at their centre — competing in chariot races, or parting the Red Sea, or cursing humanity in front of what’s left of the Statue of Liberty.
It’s perhaps easy now to colour Heston as a gun-toting, reactionary conservative, thanks to his high-profile role in the National Rifle Association and talk of “cold dead hands” while America still reeled from the Columbine high school killings. It would be a shame if we couldn’t, instead, celebrate the body of work; the movies for Sam Peckinpah, Orson Welles, Anthony Mann, Nicolas Ray, William Wyler and Carol Reed that made him the screen icon of the 1950s and Sixties, blue-eyed and lantern-jawed, who Pauline Kael called “a god-like hero, built for strength.”
There seemed to be no role too big for Heston. Michelangelo, Moses, Cardinal Richelieu, Sir Thomas More, Sherlock Holmes, Henry VIII, John the Baptist; in 1990, in a Paul Hogan film called Almost An Angel, he even got to play God. I’m hard pressed to think of another actor with a CV of such stellar characters. It says, perhaps, much about the iconic status Heston achieved after Ben-Hur that he seemed to become the go-to guy for any larger-than-life characters. He was a thoughtful, dignified, mythic presence in his biggest films, everything these Technicolor epics demanded.
I suppose I’m equally fascinated by the string of sci-fi movies he made in the Sixties and Seventies — Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973), all steeped in the paranoia of the age, issuing grim warnings about biological warfare, global warming and the perils of animal husbandry with monkeys. They chime with Heston’s own political agenda — at that time, he was a keen Democrat, who’d supported both the Kennedy brothers and been a highly vocal advocate of civil rights.
His gentlemanly demeanour seemed to put him at odds with Sam Peckinpah, with whom he made the great Civil War drama Major Dundee in 1965, a “Moby Dick on horseback” according to the actor RG Armstrong. Peckinpah had a habit of fighting with whichever studio he was currently working; the Dundee shoot was no exception. As Heston explained in David Weddle’s biography of Peckinpah “If They Move… Kill ‘Em“, the director “had this almost pathological antipathy towards anyone with a big office above the ground floor.” In the end, Heston offered to forfeit his salary if Peckinpah was fired, he even ended up directing some scenes when Peckinpah himself was too drunk. And they clashed, of course, Heston reportedly coming close on one occasion to riding down Peckinpah, sabre in hand.
Although the original cut of the film is considered something of a disaster (there’s a Region 1 DVD of the Restored Cut you can buy), Heston is superb as the disgraced Union cavalry officer who leads a private army on an 2,400 mile trek across Mexico in pursuit of Apache warlord Sierra Charriba. I’m reminded of John Wayne in The Searchers when I watch Heston in Major Dundee; both are playing on their image as iconic men of action, both Dundee and Ethan Edwards driven on their murderous, obsessive quests by queasy notions of racial hatred.
I love, too, Touch Of Evil (1958), for Welles, another movie touched by controversy, re-cut and in places even re-shot by Universal. It’s a sweaty, Kafkaesque thriller, with Heston’s ambiguous Mexican policeman up against Welles’ corrupt American detective. The opening tracking shot is one of the greatest moments in cinema, but Heston himself is equally memorable, a fine on-screen match for Welles.
But I guess for me, Heston will always be there on the beach, weeping on his knees as the surf rolls around him, haranguing the skies and the ghosts of his peers — “Goddamn you all to hell!”