To see Charlton Heston in person was to realize that some people are born to be movie stars. He had a larger-than-life presence on-screen. And off-screen as well. In 1980, at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (the now-defunct FILMEX), I watched him introduce with his characteristic charisma and grace a three-day marathon of epic films. He was an appropriate choice to introduce the event since Heston, more than any other actor, defined the epic genre.
The golden era of the cinema epic lasted from approximately 1956 to 1966 (coinciding with the peak years of Cinemascope, VistaVision, and other wide-screen processes), and more often than not during that period, it was Heston who played the lead. The epics in which he appeared during those years were as follows:
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille 1956) – Playing Moses, Heston convinces you he could part the Red Sea.
The Big Country (William Wyler 1958) – An epic Western. Heston plays a bad guy in this one, a ranch foreman who battles good guy Gregory Peck mano-a-mano in the film’s climactic fight sequence.
Ben-Hur (Wyler 1959) – Winning an Oscar as Judah Ben-Hur.
El Cid (Anthony Mann 1961, above) – Probably the finest film on this list. Heston is unforgettable as the Cid. Who else had the stature to play this legendary role?
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray 1963) – Set during the turn of the century Boxer Rebellion. Want to see how good an actor Heston could be? Watch him here as American Major Matt Lewis trying to explain to a young Chinese girl that everyone she loved is dead.
Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah 1965) – Another epic Western. Set during the Civil War. Heston plays the Ahab-like Major, obsessed with tracking down a band of murderous Apaches.
The Agony and the Ectasy (Carol Reed 1965) – Heston’s Moses was a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s statute of the patriarch, so why not play Michelangelo himself? Unfortunately the weakest film on this list.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens 1965) – An unfairly maligned film. Visually stunning. Max Von Sydow appears as the best-acted screen Jesus ever. Heston is John the Baptist.
The War Lord (Franklin Schaffner 1965) – The fourth Heston epic to be released in 1965! A gritty, fascinating look at the feudal era. To quote Wikipedia, “Heston plays Chrysagon de la Cruex, an aging Norman knight charged with defending a Druidic village.”
Khartoum (Basil Deardon 1966) – Heston plays the British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon opposite Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi.
After 1966, the cinema epic suffered a rapid decline. To compare 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (in which Heston did not appear) to its 2000 semi-remake Gladiator is to observe with deep regret how much the cinema epic has been dumbed down during the intervening decades, and how the vast sets and casts of tens of thousands that once occupied the Spanish plains (where many of these films were shot) have been replaced by cheaper and easier to control CGI. Regardless, even after the ’60s, Heston continued to contribute to the epic genre, giving one of his best performances as the sinister Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Just as Heston’s Moses resembled Michelangelo’s sculpture, Heston’s Richelieu recalls a painting by El Greco.
The epic was not the only genre to which Heston made major contributions. He also appeared as policemen in two key film noirs – Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and Richard Fleischer’s eco-conscious Soylent Green (1973), the first serious American feature to successfully blend film noir and futuristic sci-fi, anticipating Blade Runner and Harrison Ford’s performance therein by more than a decade.
Heston’s final screen appearances were both quite moving in their respective ways – as Tim Roth’s dying ape father in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake (2001 – Heston appeared in both versions), and as himself in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), maintaining dignity even as he shuffled away from Moore’s prying camera, age having caught up with him at last.
[El Cid image courtesy of In the Company of Glenn. Thanks again, GK.]