Sunday, April 06, 2008

Moses has gone up the mountain

If you ask me to name my favorite films, most of them would star Charlton Heston. The Three Musketeers in which he played Cardinal Richelieu is, in my opinion, one of the top five movies of all time, and the best historic epic ever. Not far behind are The Agony and the Ecstasy, Ben Hur, The Buccaneer, The Greatest Story Ever Told, El Cid, Khartoum, Major Dundee, Will Penney, Tombstone and of course every SCA knight’s favorite wet-dream, The Warlord. Then there were contemporary films, like A Touch of Evil, Earthquake, and The Greatest Show on Earth. And for a few years Heston was even the king of science fiction with Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green.

Oh yeah. And he was Moses.

For people of a certain age, the early TV age, Heston was history:
Colonel Gordon,
Andrew Jackson (twice)
Ben Hur
Buffalo Bill
Sir Thomas Moore
Henry VIII
Thomas Jefferson
John the Baptist
His last role ever was as Joseph Mengele

I swear I saw a movie wherein Heston played St. Peter, but I can’t find it now. Then there’s all the great fictional characters he played in historical movies like The Hawaiians and Call of the Wild. He also played Sherlock Holmes, Heathcliff, MacBeth, Peer Gynt, the Player King, and Marc Antony (three times). He had, as he said, a face for another time. Just the other day I was talking to my students about Michaelangello’s statue of Moses, and told them that that was the look DeMille copied for his image of Moses. What I learned today was that DeMille cast Heston because of his resemblance to the statue. So Heston got to play both the artist and, in a way, one of his most famous creations.

A lot of my leftie buddies out there will be dancing in the streets at his demise. To them he was a joke: an old conservative hack who had made grotesquely overwrought movies they think are terrible. He made himself the voice of conservatives, particularly after Ronald Regan left the scene, and they will never forgive him for it. He had after all (like Regan before him) been fairly liberal at one time: he’d been president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and he’d marched in civil rights marches but, like Regan, he grew more conservative with age. Though less than Regan, he was seen as a traitor by the left, especially in Hollywood. So what? I break with my left leaning friends on Heston’s biggest issue, guns, anyway. I took greater exception to the way he attacked Ice T. For a long time Heston was a struggle for me. I idolized him growing up, but his politics repulsed me. But as I got older and a bit (just a bit) more conservative (or perhaps more mellow in my outlook), none of that seemed to matter. Whenever he showed up in one of his late cameos, like in Wayne’s World or True Lies, or even that awful remake of Planet of the Apes, he instantly made the mover more enjoyable. What did I care if he campaigned for the Republicans? I’ll let you in on a secret: as much as I like Michael Moore, and as good a film as I thought Bowling for Columbine was, I was furious at what he did to Heston in the last scene, ambushing him like that. I stormed out of the movie theatre in a rage.

Once upon a time Charlton Heston was my hero. He was the actor I wanted to be, playing the roles I wanted to play. If he sometimes seemed to over act it wasn’t that he was over acting, it’s that he himself was so much bigger than life that the roles he played couldn’t contain him. Look at the subtlety in how he plays Richelieu, the range he displays as Jackson, the doomed dignity he brings to Gordon. And come on: how could you deliver a method Moses—especially with DeMille as your director and Yul Brynner as your pharaoh? He was probably one of the greatest actors we will ever see, and he was certainly the most epic. Like Brynner and John Wayne, he had a presence, a spirit that was so big that it took over every film he was in (which is why the two films he did with Brynner are so much fun to watch).

But the thing about actors—the great ones—is that they don’t die away. They stay with us forever, or at least as long as we have DVDs and cable TV. Heston will drop into our lives from time to time by surprise, showing up on our doorstep as Major Dundee or as Marc Anthony, and we’ll welcome him in and reminisce, and he’ll make us feel good again. As with Brando and Olivier and John Wayne we can call them up whenever we want. And of course he’ll come over to our house every Easter when they show Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments which is how I saw Heston last, two weeks ago on Easter weekend as I was staying in a hotel in Tahlequah Oklahoma, I had The Ten Commandments to make me feel at home. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been thumbing through my 1,000 channels and paused on A Touch of Evil and been sucked in, not leaving again till Marlene Dietrich says “He was a man.”

No, great movie stars never die. They live with us forever. So long, Moses.


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