augusta free press news

Heston pries movie fame from our cold dead hands

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Just last week, that big Golden Gate up yonder creaked open, and Charlton Heston was admitted to Movie Star Heaven.

Naturally, he received a standing ovation from the ghosts of William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas (who is not yet dead but, as President of the Lantern-Jawed Movie Heroes Union, was there on a temporary visa).

Down here on earth, however, some film fans (particularly aging hippie liberals) took the news of Heston’s death with mixed emotions.

Yes indeed, he will be remembered as an iconic figure – even if the last time you remember seeing him on film he was being verbally flayed and made to look like an idiot by Michael Moore in “Bowling for Columbine.”

His fans – and they are legion, if antique – recall him as a young fighter for civil rights who, in his dotage, turned archconservative and famously captained the NRA.

Separating a man from his work is not easy, especially if he’s a movie star, and I fear Heston is forever linked with his chilling “cold dead hands” speech. It was a good moment, but he was a better actor than we tend to give him credit for.

It is difficult to just consider his films and perhaps separate the wheat from the chaff. Considering the era that most of them were made and the acting style at that time, the value of the epics that Heston appeared in is now a matter of taste. At any rate, they’ve been moshed over countless times.

Personally, I think Chuckie Baby hit his peak in the later 1960s with films like “Major Dundee,” “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” “Khartoum,” and his own favorite role, “Will Penny.” Heston won his Best Actor Oscar for “Ben Hur” in 1959, but let’s face it, think of Heston, you think of Moses in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956). Modestly billed as “The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History,” it was nominated for Best Picture and six other Academy Awards (all technical, no acting noms) and won only for Special Effects. Still, it’s one of Those Movies: a classic, regardless of the heavy layer of schmaltz.

Some consider “Ben Hur” the epitome of Hestonism due to the fact that it won him an Oscar, was named Best Picture, and marched off with a total of 11 Academy Awards. Impressive, but even more overwrought than most.

Heston played but one character in virtually all his films. Call the hero El Cid, Michaelangelo, Moses, Brigham Young, Abe Lincoln, Marc Antony, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or John the Baptist, no matter – he was always this big fearless heroic guy who, while often tortured, always made you wish you were on his team.

In later years, he returned to TV, playing characters like Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” (1990) and Sherlock Holmes in “The Crucible of Blood” (1991).

He had a long career indeed, distinguished by big roles in big movies and an acting style that needed no subtlety to nudge the story along. My personal favorite, probably only because it was based on a short story I admired, was “The Naked Jungle” (1954) co-starring Eleanor Parker. There was Chuck, in the middle of the jungle, awaiting the attack of the deadly Marabunta. It was a jazzed up version of “Leningen Versus the Ants,” and my favorite radio actor, William Conrad, had a supporting role. (Conrad had played the lead in the radio version). But who of us (us adults, anyway) doesn’t have at least one Heston Epic tucked away in our Secret Pleasure Memory Bank?

Also last week, Turner Classic Movies ran a Heston festival, but he’s rarely missing from the wee screen during any given calendar period. This week, for instance, you can catch “Airport 1975” and “Call of the Wild” on cable.

So no matter what you think of his politics, his social philosophy or his sometimes laughable serious acting style, you’ve got to admit that the big guy, over a lengthy career, has managed to pry real movie star fame from our cold, dead hands.

And whether you begrudge it or not, you have to admit he earned it.


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.