Appreciation: Charlton Heston

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Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments.

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The Apes movie (which spawned four sequels, only one of which Heston appeared in) shows that in Vietnam-era science fiction, no less than in other films of the period, happy endings were not mandatory. Even escapist films offered scant chance of escape from the sour national mood. The 1971 The Omega Man (recently remade with Will Smith as I Am Legend) was another dystopian fantasy film. Again Heston was possibly the last human on earth, battling predatory subhuman creatures who might have been the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground or the Watergate plotters. In the jungle that has replaced civilization, reason gives way to armed self-defense. When another human does show up, and Heston gives her a rifle, she asks what it's for and he replies, "Comfort."

What's worse than a city with no humans? One with too many, in Heston's last big s-f parable, the 1973 Soylent Green. Spinning off the doomsday population predictions of Paul Ehrlich, the movie imagined New York 50 years hence, with 40 million people crushed on the island, half of them out of work. The Soylent Corporation, which runs the town, determines there's only one way to feed these people: by feeding them people. The bitter cop Heston plays is a precursor to the Harrison Ford role in Blade Runner. One big difference: Soylent Green, and Heston's other s-f horror shows, made lots of money. The star's presence brought the crowds in to watch their doomed destiny.

Heston's political beliefs followed a familiar trajectory — one that had been traced by a previous SAG president, Ronald Reagan — of liberal Democrat turned conservative Republican. In the early 60s he was a civil rights advocate, and accompanied Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1963 March on Washington. He opposed Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, and in 1968, after Robert Kennedy's assassination, he called for gun controls. He rejected a plea from prominent Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate only because, unlike Reagan when he segued into politics, Heston still had a thriving movie career.

But as time marches on in political events, at an ever more agitated pace, the advance guard often becomes the rear guard, and then disburses, grumbling. So Heston supported restrictions on abortion; he campaigned for Reagan (possible bumper sticker: "God Likes the Gipper") and both Bushes; he inadvisedly posed for a photo with a white supremacist leader. He spoke at any conservative function that would have him, and what group wouldn't? At these appearances he showed a thespic vitality absent from his diminishing turns before the movie and TV cameras. The actor's stentorian talents may have been looking for the kind of forum they had lately been denied in films. If screenwriters would no longer write heroic lines for his movie characters, he'd do it himself.

No question, he came up with a great one. in 1998 Heston, who had long since renounced his gun-control stance, became president of the NRA. Two years later, addressing an NRA convention, he mimicked Moses‚ gesture at the Red Sea by holding above his head one of the 400 firearms he owned — a handmade Brooks flintlock rifle — and proclaiming that the Democratic Presidential candidate could remove that gun only by prying it "from my cold, dead hands." It was as if Al Gore was Messala, or the Ape King, or the Omega man's marauders, or a band of Comanches who needed a comeuppance of defiant rhetoric plus massive weaponry. The declaration assured that popular history would now remember Heston not just as a movie axiom but as the Holy Gun Fighter.

That stance earned him death threats in punk rock songs and, if not pariah status in Hollywood, then the image of a cranky grandpa. Which hardly flustered Heston; he'd been playing the righteous loner for too long to lose sleep from exile by the reigning Hollywood Left. ("Political correctness," he said in a 1999 speech at the Harvard Law School, "is tyranny with manners.") When Michael Moore came to the actor's home and confronted him, for the climactic scene of the 2002 pro-gun-control documentary Bowling for Columbine, Heston looked both gracious and stern, perplexed and frail. In movie terms it was an unfair fight, because Moore had the heavier artillery: not his arguments, necessarily, but his camera and the power of an editor over an actor.

Heston remained NRA President until 2003, when he resigned in acknowledgment of Alzheimer's ravages. That year, the Association erected, in front of its D.C. headquarters, a 10-ft. bronze likeness of Heston as the cowboy Will Penny, brandishing a handgun. The man who seemed like sculpture on screen had become a statue in honor of his favorite cause.

It's somehow fitting that Heston should be viewed as a larger-than-life anachronism. He is an emissary from a time when movies took themselves and their subjects seriously, when a leading man didn't have to crack wise to win over the audience, when stalwart trumped facetious, and screen conversation was more eloquent and elevated. In all those decades of heroes, Heston never once played one based on a comic book; his films‚ sources were the Bible, ancient history and Shakespeare.

It's inconceivable that such movies could be made today — in part because popular culture has changed no less than political fashions. But mainly because there's no one remotely like Charlton Heston to give them stature, fire and guts.

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