The words icon and legend are bandied about a great deal in modern society. Most of the time they mean nothing or at the very least they are simple hyperbole. However, when these words are used to describe Charlton Heston they come across as an understatement.
I don’t remember the first time that I encountered Heston’s work, but I do remember the first time that his work captured me and made me a fan. It was the early 1990s and I watched The Omega Man, an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Heston delivered a performance that makes me certain that he was the template for the modern action hero. He was strong and masculine, but he also delivered emotion that highlighted the loneliness of being the last man on earth. The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green would become Heston’s post-apocalyptic trilogy, and they are classics in the science fiction genre. Without these three films we wouldn’t have films like The Terminator, Escape From New York or most low-budget sci-fi efforts from the 80s and 90s.
When Heston was on screen he dominated the scene, each movement, gesture and intonation of his huge voice would turn any co-star into an extra. One only has to look at his one scene cameo in James Cameron’s True Lies, where he is able to make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a naughty school boy to see the power that he had as an actor. He was the king of the epic – films like Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and El Cid made him iconic, they made him a movie star. He was the only actor who could stand next to giant sets and not be dwarfed by their grandeur, but he could also act. While John Wayne had the same screen presence as Heston, he was too characteristically American; he couldn’t really play any other nationality convincingly. Heston on the other hand could. Romans, Jewish Princes, Biblical characters and Spanish heroes were all in a day’s work for the screen icon. One of his greatest roles was in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil; a film where Heston convincingly plays a Mexican politician is a strong role in a film that deservedly grows in reputation with every year that passes.
Heston was also a great writer. His autobiography – In the Arena – is not only a thrilling Hollywood memoir (with stunning behind-the-scenes detail on the making of Ben-Hur) but it is also a great story. Could it be one of the greatest stories ever told? In my humble opinion yes, the book is outstanding and I rate it as one of the greatest books ever written. Filled with humour, anecdotes and humility, the life of Heston would make an impressive film in itself. If only there was an actor today who had the gravitas of Heston.
Even Heston’s lesser or overlooked films are worth viewing, a film like Earthquake may not be awards worthy, but it is one of the best films in the 1970’s “disaster movie” cycle. Other films like Will Penny, Major Dundee and The Greatest Show on Earth are also all worth your viewing time. I could quite happily go through most of Heston’s films and give reasons why they should be watched, but let’s face it, the main reason to watch a Heston film is Heston himself. Smaller roles in big films such as George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told or Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet add a texture and intensity to the film that you can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
It is such a pity that Heston’s last big screen appearance was in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine. Moore shamelessly exploited Heston, by taking advantage of the ageing star’s openness and willingness to talk about film and the NRA. Moore cast Heston as the villain of his documentary and used Heston’s name and fame to gain exposure and publicity. Whilst Charlton Heston’s family and fans mourn their loss, I hope that Moore feels guilt for trying to tarnish the name and reputation of such a great man for personal gain and for puerile entertainment.
Charlton Heston was a legend, an icon and a true great of the cinema, stage and television. He was larger than the cinema screen itself. He played legends throughout his career and in doing so became a legend. In 2002 Heston announced that he had Alzheimer’s Disease, and retired from the screen leaving the cinema with a great loss, a loss that has now been made immeasurable by his death. As one of the last big stars of the studio era Heston has left behind a legacy of wonderful performances that will entertain and educate for decades to come.
Charlton Heston was born on 4 October 1923 and died on 5 April 2008.