Charlton Heston R.I.P.

When Charlton Heston played contemporary characters, I found him cold and off-putting. But—needless to say—in his many period pieces he was outstanding. Some criticize Heston for being of the clenched-jaw school of 1950s acting. While there is some truth to that observation, it misses the larger impact of his work. Think of his Michelangelo in The Agony and Ecstasy. He became that tortured figure, consumed with his art to such an extent that his manhood is left somehow wounded and incomplete. Amazingly his face even came to resemble Michelangelo’s.

A Heston movie I liked a lot that is not well known is The Warlord (1965), in which he plays a Norman knight who is given a fiefdom by his lord in reward for service, but who then does a wrongful and selfish thing, sparking a bloody revolt by the peasants in his territory. Though he is guilty, his guilt does not prevent him from successfully defending his tower from the rebellion. His lieutenant, played by Richard Boone, who was especially condemning of him for his sinful act, nevertheless stands manfully at the side in the battle.

The movie dramatizes a type of multileveled, tragic consciousness that has been lost in the West. Traditional Western man knows he is not perfect, knows he has committed sins, and knows he has to pay for them; but that does not take away his will to fight for the right and defend his own. Starting in the 1960s, however, when The Warlord was made, the people of the West adopted the suicidal liberal attitude that if they have any moral flaws (moral flaws according to liberalism, of course), they have no right to preserve their society from its enemies.

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Tim W. writes:

I need to see The Warlord. It sounds like an excellent film. I still love watching Heston in Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, even though I’ve seen those films many times. He went through an interesting sci-fi phase about forty years ago, with Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man. All of those films are well-regarded by enthusiasts of that genre. It was always a bit strange seeing him in films set in the future after he had appeared in so many historical epics, but I guess it’s the mark of a successful actor that he could pull it off. Heston remained married to the same woman for 64 years, which speaks volumes about his character in a place like Hollywood.

Your observation of the change in our society wrought by the 1960s is absolutely correct. Back in 1960, there was a low budget British sci-fi film called Village of the Damned, based on a novel by John Wyndham. It was about the women of a small English village giving birth to kids who were in fact aliens bent on conquering earth. The children had astronomical IQs and were developing the psychic ability to control humans. But despite their genius, they were seen as flawed for not having souls or the ability to differentiate right from wrong. Essentially, they lacked a conscience, and a way was devised to destroy them before they destroyed us.

They remade this film in 1993 with a huge budget and a big cast of stars, including Christopher Reeve in his final role before his horse riding accident. The remake featured unrelenting levels of gratuitous violence and absurd Political Correctness (the lead child was now a little girl instead of a boy, for example). There was lots of bashing of Christians and our military. But the biggest difference was that everyone seemed to concede that we are so evil and such failures that we really have no moral standing to object to the aliens taking us over. After all, we’ve stolen land from indigenous people and hunted whales nearly to extinction. At the end of this film, one of the kids survives, which isn’t seen as all that bad.

What a difference three decades can make.

Mark E. writes:

Here is (liberal) actor Richard Dreyfuss’s sincere, moving tribute to Charlton Heston (NRO, 2002), after Heston announced that he had Alzheimer’s.

Here is the key quote:

He could portray greatness, which is no longer an artistic goal; he could portray a grandeur that was so satisfying. What he was able to personify so perfectly for us was a vision of ourselves called heroic. Is this out of favor? Out of step? Antique? Yes, antique as in gorgeous, incredibly valuable, and not produced anymore but this is a critique of the world, not him (hopefully we will one day come back to all that).

LA writes:

One thing I want to mention, because it’s organic to Heston’s unique ability to play heroes in period pieces (past or future), is his heroic, “larger-than-life,” yet natural-looking physique. I don’t know by what regimen he achieved it (or maybe no regimen), but it was so strikingly different from the artificial, mass-produced-in-a-gym, “puffed-out” look of actors’ physiques today.

Ben W. writes:

For me Charlton Heston came from a generation of actors in which men were shown as men. Then sometime after the 60s we got the mousy, little shrimp type.

Heston also for me was a lesson in the folly of supporting the civil rights movement. Blacks and liberals soon turned on him after marching with them.

LA writes:

Here are Diana West’s thoughts on Charlton Heston, at her blog. I like the way she talks about Heston. That he was stiff, but give him a historic role, and he could inhabit it as no other actor could.

Also, I didn’t know that West had a blog. Now we can read her thoughts more than once a week, and maybe going further than she doesin her columns.

Mark Jaws writes:

I completely agree with you about Charlton Heston and your take on the lessons learned from the movie, “The Warlord.” But what you said about the imperfect yet enduring qualities of western man could be said for just about any movie made before 1965. We have seen the recent remake of the Alamo, in which the legendary Davie Crockett was depicted as a self-doubting, PC pipsqueak. Could you imagine how contemporary screen writers and directors would pervert the heroic actions so superbly brought to the screen in the 1965 classic “Zulu?”

Paul K. writes:

It’s generally not a good idea to expect too much from an actor based on the roles he plays, or else we’d be disappointed when we learn that Sylvester Stallone demands fluffy pink towels in his dressing room or that the actor playing James Bond can’t drive a stick shift and is afraid of guns. However, there must be something within an actor that he brings to in his roles, or else every good actor could play a wider range of parts than they do. Clint Eastwood makes a convincing tough guy in a way that Tom Cruise does not—and never will. It’s just not in him.

I thought the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was very well cast, except for Aragorn. I can’t look at Viggo Mortensen and see a king there: there is nothing about him which commands respect; nothing in his demeanor that suggests reservoirs of strength, courage, and wisdom. It was the sort of role that Charlton Heston could have portrayed convincingly, though.

Heston is the type of man we see less and less of in public life: one who took public stands on principle despite the cost to his career and his image in the media.

I read this 1999 speech Heston gave in front of the Harvard Union. It may not be strong stuff by VFR standards, but it shows his character. I particularly enjoyed his account of the time he attended a stockholders’ meeting of Time-Warner, and read out loud the lyrics to “Cop Killer,” a rap song by Ice Tea that they were marketing. (Incidentally, nothing that Ice Tea has ever said or done seems to have hurt his career in any way, which cannot be said for Heston.)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 07, 2008 02:03 AM | Send

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