the complexity of charlton heston

Charlton Heston died this weekend at age 84, following Roy Scheider and Richard Widmark as the latest in a series of powerful cinematic actors to pass away — although Heston was probably best known to a younger generation as the old guy who walked out of a Michael Moore interview in Bowling for Columbine. His was an ambivalent life – living through 14 presidencies (and personally befriending several of the most recent occupants of the office), supporting civil rights when it was unfashionable, switching his political allegiances, and latterly becoming identified with right-wing causes. Not often a subtle actor (although you could do worse than watch his performance in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil as a tribute), he represented a particular kind of vanishing screen presence who, like John Wayne, represented a vision of American greatness that depended far too much on the suggestion of invulnerability.

So, now that he is gone, what do you say about Charlton Heston? Something simple: He shouldn’t be judged on the basis of one interview, given after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease to a door-stopping filmmaker known for his pranks.

He should be judged on his contribution to the movies — doing gravitas better than anyone else, standing as our image of Moses, Ben-Hur, various military captains, the head of the CIA, and ultimately a particular kind of god figure. I never saw a Heston performance that didn’t entertain me on some level.

And, in the interests of full disclosure, he should also be judged on his political activity. The simplistic analysis of the relationship between personal freedom and gun ownership offered by the National Rifle Association, which Heston did so much to bolster, seems outrageous to my Northern Irish ears. In his speeches to and on behalf of the NRA, Heston also sometimes seemed to lack empathy for the victims of gun crime, in his attempts to promote his contentious understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, he was an early supporter of the civil rights movement, and even picketed a screening of one of his own films because it was being screened in a racially segregated cinema. He also made several films, such as Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and Planet of the Apes, that endorsed environmental and anti-nuclear causes at a time when it wasn’t as easy to engage the public mind in these matters.

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