A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Charlton Heston

As we go through life, we must at one time or another make one conclusion: we are all human beings each with our own set of complexities. I use as an example a fictional television character, Archie Bunker. I have seldom agreed with his political and social views, yet I recognize that Archie is a man who loves his family and works hard to provide for them. This is the beauty of the character as played by the late Carroll O’Connor. There is much more to the man than what we can see on the surface. I have always been torn when it comes to Archie; I don’t know if I should punch him in his bigoted mouth, or give him a Father’s Day card.

I have similar views about Charlton Heston, who passed away last weekend after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. He is being remembered as an actor who tackled larger than life roles in film. I admire his work in such movies as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, there is his life as a political activist, mainly in preserving the Second Amendment. Here I disagree with the hard-line, all-or-nothing stance he adopted when he headed the National Rifle Association. Yet this was only a small part of his long, complex life.

A handsome leading man with classic chiseled features, Heston came to prominence in The Greatest Show on Earth. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille – another Hollywood icon who I revere more for his work than his staunch Republican, redbaiting politics – the movie was just a teaser for DeMille’s next and last spectacular epic, The Ten Commandments. Here Heston took on the role of Moses, the adopted son of the Pharaoh’s daughter who throws away the pampered lifestyle of an Egyptian prince to return to his true roots — that of a Hebrew slave.

This altered life path enables him to become the leader of his people, and ultimately receive God’s law. The highlight of the film is his parting of the Red Sea so that he and his people can escape Egypt. DeMille used old fashioned, handcrafted animation utilizing ink, paint, and cels for this special effect, long before computers became the primary tools in today’s animation studio. Back then, CGI were just three capital letters placed together for no particular reason. In any event, DeMille’s efforts paid off; his second telling of The Ten Commandments earned an Oscar for Special Effects.

Heston’s next epic, Ben Hur, did not need special effects to tell “a tale of the Christ”. The sea battle and chariot racing scenes have become justly famous in their own right. The film was a huge success winning eleven Oscars – a record at that time – and Heston’s performance played a large part in the film's achieving iconic status.

A third Heston film that made an impression on me was Planet of the Apes. Here he used the line, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” which became nearly as quotable as his “Let my people go” line from The Ten Commandments. Many of us remember this film today for its unforgettable, post-Earth apocalyptic ending. I’ve been unable to confirm the story that the director was able to coax the incredulous emotions out of Heston by telling him that the Second Amendment had just been repealed. Okay, I can’t confirm it, because I just made that story up. Don’t bother searching the web for it.

It was about this time that Heston’s views changed from liberal Democrat, who had marched along side Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to a conservative Republican with his knuckles frozen around the barrel of a rifle. He headed the National Rifle Association in more recent years which led to one of his final big screen appearances - he played himself in Michael Moore’s documentary about America’s obsession with guns, Bowling for Columbine.

The scene itself took place in Heston’s own home. Moore prodded, cajoled, and finally demanded that Heston apologize for his extremist views on gun ownership. Heston, looking old and frail, refused and walked out of the scene. The man stood up for his principles to the very end, but it was still an ignominious finale to Heston’s larger than life screen career in American film.*

We’ll remember Charlton Heston for his many deeds, and attach many labels to his life. I’ve used several of them here – conservative, liberal, larger than life, and iconic – just in these few paragraphs to sum up his complex life. There’s one other label we can put on him: American. He’d probably like that one best of all.

*His final role was in an Italian production, My Father, Rua Alguem 5555 (2003).


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