Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Apocalypse Man: Charlton Heston Revisited

In 2008, when actor Charlton Heston died from pneumonia at the age of 84, he had already long characterized himself in movies as something of an icon of American strength and endurance. His profile before the camera always seemed as if it were chiseled in rock and eventually destined for Mount Rushmore – a formidable figure built to scale heights and widen movie screens. Which is why he was the perfect candidate for epics: whether playing the patriarch Moses in The Ten Commandments, the noble Christian Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar in El Cid, or Judah, the Jew who converts to Christianity, in Ben-Hur, he had the broad-shouldered physique and authority to carry the weight of their piety. Even if you could always dismiss the movies, you couldn't quite reject Heston. But his strength was paradoxical. While the strong, silent heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper wore stoicism as their badge, Heston brought a grandeur to his roles, as if he truly believed he were a prophet delivering the word. The disappointment and the pain of defeat in the face of failure were equally epic. Charlton Heston was not be a man to go quietly into the dark night. By the time he was addressing the National Rifle Association at their convention in 2000, holding a raised rifle over his head to declare to Democratic presidential candidate, Al Gore, that he would have to take his gun "from my cold, dead hands," it wasn't simply political rhetoric. Heston's defiance was theatrical in its intent and scaled as large as the movies he made.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, after two decades of devoted liberalism, Heston played roles in a handful of movies that put the idea of American exceptionalism to the test. A Democrat for most of the Sixties, he was one of a handful of actors who joined Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, he supported Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act and publicly opposed California Proposition 14 , which rolled back the state's fair housing law. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June 1968, Heston joined with James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas to support President Johnson's Gun Control Act. He would go on to support the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey for President. But that same spring, in a film that opened nationally mere days before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Charlton Heston appeared in Franklin J.Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, a film that opened nationally mere days before King's assassination, in a role that seemed to mirror a growing disillusionment, as if every prophetic part he ever played were about to turn into a sick joke. But he wasn't the butt of that joke; his character was simultaneously the hero and the anti-hero.

The ending of The Planet of the Apes

In the movie, based on Pierre Boule's 1963 novel Monkey Planet, Heston plays astronaut George Taylor, a wise-ass cynic who volunteers for the space program because "there has to be something better out there besides man." He and his surviving crew crash-land in a lake on an unknown planet two millennia after their departure in 1972. Packing only cigars and plenty of attitude, as film critic Geoff Pevere once remarked, Heston's Taylor enjoys ribbing Landon (Robert Gunner) -- who plants a little American flag in the soil, as the astronauts on the moon would a year later -- for his good-natured patriotism and hopeful demeanor. Taylor is a hostile man, though his hostility isn't like John Wayne's in The Searchers, where the character's racism and misanthropy are shaped by a sense of loss and defeat in a war. Taylor's comes from an existential place, as he states in a Hamlet-like soliloquy that opens the picture, where he ponders who he is in the face of the great emptiness of space after leaving a planet where mankind always seemed on the brink of blowing itself up. The counter-culture was growing lost and traumatized by the end of 1968, and Taylor, too, has no ideals to motivate him -- just the instinct for survival and the power to govern. One look at the mute humans gathering food, and he comments dryly, "Pretty soon we'll be running this planet." But the joke turns out to be on Taylor: the planet they've landed on is ruled by simians and man is now the inferior species.

Heston's Taylor spends the movie running for his life and avoiding incarceration, lobotomy and castration at the hands of the simians, and he also seems to be reveling in his own physical prowess. (When he is stripped nude before a tribunal, we share Taylor's humiliation at the same time as the actor's ease with his own nakedness.) What makes Heston so appealing in the role is that irony doesn't diminish him; it humanizes him. "[W]e don't hate him, because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power – the physical attraction and admiration one feels toward the beauty of strength as well as the moral revulsion one feels toward the ugliness of violence," critic Pauline Kael remarked of Heston in her review. When Taylor, finally having escaped from the apes, arrives at his destiny, he rides along the shore line to see what new world awaits him. The concluding scene, with its apocalyptic image, so striking for its time, releases a rage in Taylor that embodies the failure of all that American power. "You maniacs! You blew it up!," he cries out, as if finally recognizing his own powerlessness at stopping it from happening. Coming home hasn't provided the comfort it could have promised. It's as if Moses had suddenly lost the Ten Commandments, or as if his followers opted instead for Edward G. Robinson's Dathan and continued to party with the Golden Calf. Heston is no longer on the mountaintop shouting salvation. He's on his knees before the crippled Statue of Liberty humbled by all that is lost.

Charlton Heston and Rosalind Cash in The Omega Man

By the time Heston appears in The Omega Man (1971), based on the 1954 dystopian novel I Am Legend by the American writer Richard Matheson, he's traded that rage over the loss of a world for the portrait of a largely solitary man coming to terms with his fate. After biological warfare between Russia and China kills most of the world's population. Heston's Robert Neville is a scientist based in Los Angeles after biological warfare between Russia and China has killed most of the world's population. Neville is trying not to succumb to the plague that has wiped out the rest of the planet; when he begins to succumb, he injects himself with an experimental vaccine that renders him immune. While the rest of humanity turn into albino mutants known as The Family who come out at night, Neville spends his days musing to a bust of Caesar while playing chess ("Your move, Imperator"), and watching endless screenings of Woodstock (where Country Joe & the Fish entertain him with "Rock & Soul Music" and Arlo Guthrie reminds him of "Coming into Los Angeles") that lead him to retort, "They sure don't make pictures like that anymore." In Planet of the Apes, Taylor's cynicism turns out to be inadequate to his task; in The Omega Man, Neville's sarcasm leads him to wonder if things were ever any good to begin with. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful and comes up with a serum to help those who have turned. He even has a black girlfriend, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), a survivor he meets who eventually becomes a mutant and betrays him to The Family, though he manages to get the serum out before he dies. The love affair turned out to be revolutionary, with one of the first interracial kisses in Hollywood history. The casting of Cash was due to the growing influence of the Black Power movement in America by 1971. Heston later wrote in his autobiography, In the Arena, that The Omega Man was her debut film as a lead actress, and that kissing Heston made her more than "a little edgy." He wrote, "It was in the seventies that I realized a generation of actors had grown up who saw me in terms of the iconic roles they remembered from their childhoods. 'It's a spooky feeling,' she told me, 'to screw Moses.'"

Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green

In his final dystopian thriller, Soylent Green (1973), Heston plays a New York City police detective, Frank Thorn, in 2022, where 40 million live in squalor while homeless people fill the streets due to pollution, depleted resources, dying oceans, and the year-round humidity due to the greenhouse effect. Based loosely on Harry Harrison's Nebula Award-winning Make Room! Make Room! (1966), Soylent Green focuses on the murder of one of New York's wealthy elites, which may be an assassination rather than a random crime. With the help of his aged friend, the police analyst Sol Roth (Edward G.Robinson), Thorn uncovers not only the source of the murder and its reasons, but also its relationship to a rationed food product called Soylent Green, a green wafer supposedly containing a high-energy plankton. Needless to say, the wafer doesn't come as advertised and Thorn finds out more than he bargained for. Heston's Thorn isn't the lost soul of The Omega Man, or the skeptic of The Planet of the Apes, but a man with no memory of what's been lost in the creation of all this squalid suffering. By partnering Thorn with Sol, however, a man who remembers all too well a world where you could eat meat (he cries in one scene where Thorn finds him some rare beef) and the oceans and vegetation thrived, the movie allows Heston to play Thorn as a hungry and eager detective not satisfied until he understands the truth. But though he eventually gets to it, it offers him no comfort (nor does it offer any to Sol, who decides to check out and pass into the next world). At the end Thorn is carried off by the authorities, once again – as in Planet of the Apes – railing against the crimes of mankind.  

It's likely only coincidental that Heston made no more apocalyptic films after Soylent Green and, right at this point, abandoned liberalism and became a neo-conservative. Having rejected George McGovern as Democratic candidate for President in 1972, he changed stripes and supported Richard Nixon, who won in a landslide. By the Eighties, Heston had turned his loyalties fully to the Republican Party, getting behind Reagan and later George Bush. Soon enough, he was President of the NRA, gave speeches about gun rights and the culture wars, and took aim at affirmative action (which he decried as "reverse racism"). If John Wayne (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Gary Cooper (High Noon) and Alan Ladd (Shane) were loner Americans who, in their movies, tried to build American communities that their characters ultimately couldn't live in, they accepted that fate as if they knew that the spirit of place that the Founding Fathers created in their constitutional documents would be hard to reconcile in reality. Charlton Heston, on the other hand, acted as if that reality of community, that spirit of place, wasn't so much irreconcilable as something that the follies of men and women had created despite his warnings. Surprisingly, and without too much insufferable vanity, Heston carried on though as if he'd been keeping his word with the nation all along. Who knows? Maybe it's possible that, in Heston's own mind, as he told Al Gore that he couldn't pry that gun from his cold, dead hands, he saw no difference between the looming weapon that continues to rain death on his country and the sacred tablets that brought forth the law in De Mille's 1956 epic.  

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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