He Was Legend

When Charlton Heston passed away a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but think of Michael Moore’s egregious ambush of him in Bowling for Columbine

Besides being completely unsuspecting, Heston was also obviously slowed by advanced age and diminished wit. Moore posed as a NRA aficionado and then confronted him asininely, injudiciously exploiting his waning capacity for philosophical discourse.

Trapped and unable to defend himself, Heston patted Moore’s shoulder and trudged pitifully away. Moore may have scored some zingers for gun control, but he also came off looking like a discourteous bully.

I know that as a septuagenarian, Heston was a yahoo who haughtily claimed that firearm control proponents would have to pry his guns from his cold dead hands. And I realize he obtusely stumped for global warming contrarians. In his old age, he may often have been on the wrong side of things. But he deserved better than Moore’s attack to be the last thing we remember of him on the big screen.

In the final measure of things, Heston was not just a simple conservative. His deeds and works spoke otherwise and, perhaps more than even he himself even realized, he could be inspiringly progressive.

For the “I Like Ike” generation, Heston was Moses, Ben-Hur and El Cid. Giants of historical legend and social tradition. He visually codified conventional courage, greatness and nobility. But (though many of his obituaries failed to mention it) there was a whole other side to his career. My generation recognized Heston in all his classical icon roles, but what he inspired us most with was his equally formidable 1970s sci-fi anti-hero legacy.

In perhaps the greatest and most evocative individual trifecta of radicalism in motion picture history, Heston challenged us politically, racially and environmentally. In 1968, he played Astronaut Taylor in Planet of the Apes. The movie began with his Hamlet-like monologue: “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glory of paradox—who sent me to the stars—still make war against his brother, keep his neighbor’s children starving?” His answer comes at the end of the film perhaps as astoundingly and memorably as any film sequence ever recorded. Riding on horseback away from the “Planet of the Apes,” Astronaut Taylor finds the Statue of Liberty shorn from its base, its torso half-buried on a beach. “Oh my god,” he says. “We finally really did it.” It’s a stark warning, an omen and a terrifying prophecy.

In 1971, Heston played Robert Neville, the last man on earth in Omega Man. The film warns of the dangers of biological and nuclear war, but the most subversive aspect of the narrative is Neville’s interracial relationship with the only adult female survivor, Lisa, a tough-talking a black woman played by Rosalind Cash (who he hand-picked for the role). In a year that saw race riots in Brooklyn, a Black Panther attack of a police station in San Francisco, racially-motivated murders in Mississipi and racially-motivated firebombings in North Carolina, watching Hollywood’s iconographic representation of Moses, Ben-Hur and El Cid become smitten with, kiss and eventually make love to a black woman was radical and unsettling.

Though the first glimpse that many men of the era had of a naked woman may been from tribal Africa spreads in National Geographic, to see a black woman nude, afro-ed and black-sploitation statuesque on the same screen with God’s right-hand man was a shock for whites and blacks alike. And though it may not seem like a big deal now, few Tinseltown A-listers would have taken such a role at the time.

In 1973, Heston followed up with a stark portrayal of a NYC detective named Robert Thorn in Soylent Green. The world was portrayed as a post-apocalyptic dystopia where women are referred to as “furniture,” people are starving in the streets and the political-industrial complex sponsors voluntary suicide. Thorn inadvertently discovers that the new, life-sustaining “miracle food of high energy plankton, gathered from the oceans of the world” is actually dead humans harvested from state-sanctioned suicide facilities, then recycled and processed into “Soylent Green”–an endlessly renewable food source. The final scene, though perhaps less visually astonishing as that of Planet of the Apes, is equally chilling, ominous and prescient.

For many Gen Xers, Heston put science fiction, social accountability, environmentalism and racial diversity on the map. Our formative years were filled with premieres and matinees of his sci-fi staples because we only had four or five TV channels watch and movies like Planet of the Apes, Omega Man and Soylent Green played over and over again.

Heston was a towering figure, whose very stature legitimized new political stances and cultural concerns. Even in 1990, when he stood up on Saturday Night Live and personally read a 1978 letter he wrote berating the show for being repulsive, “violent, gut-churning nausea,” he had so much profound screen “cred” I couldn’t help but respect his opinion even though I wildly disagreed with him. He’d done too much to shape my perspective on humanity and our prospects for the future.

Sure, I ignored Heston’s conservative activism for the last decade or so, but he was never far from my mind. The characters he played and the movies he was in introduced haunting implications. He was more rich and complex than the turns he took in his declining years; even as his political stances became sedimentary and outdated, his sci-fi legacy remained as relevant as ever.

Now, as oil prices fly through the roof and we still wage war against our brothers, deprive our neighbor’s children of food and stand idly by while genocides are still conducted in different places around the globe, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll really finally do it. As dead zones increase in our oceans and bees disappear from our food chain, I wonder when we’ll be forced to develop our own Soylent Green and what ingredients it’ll be comprised of. As thousands of animal and plant species disappear each passing decade and the earth’s ice caps melt and the holes in the ozone grow I think of Edgar G. Robinson’s character’s ongoing claim to Heston’s Thorn in Soylent Green: “There was a world once,” he says. “I was there. I can prove it.”

And I am harked back to Rosalind Cash’s shrugging observation to Heston in Omega Man: “Sorry the world didn’t make it.”

Will their words be my words as a grandparent or great-grandparent?

In the 1950s, Heston affirmed our beliefs by bolstering them with a face for our classical heroes. In the 1970s, he challenged us with new expressions and a new kind of hero, inspiring a whole generation to strive towards reform and circumvent our approaching perils.

Flaws and all, Heston was legend and he remains a cultural force we’d be remiss to forget or ever ignore.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on April 26th, 2008 at 7:49am #

    Great observations on Heston. Thanks.

  2. Michael Hureaux said on April 26th, 2008 at 4:40pm #

    I’d agree with you on M. Moore’s disgraceful display of bullying in Bowling for Columbine, which did more to legitimize Heston’s more reactionary moments than anything I can think of in recent years. I’m not so sure about the rest of all this.

    And it’s Edward G. Robinson, not Edgar.

  3. Al said on April 26th, 2008 at 5:06pm #

    There was nothing disgraceful about Moore’s behaviour. What was disgusting was a senile Heston’s views on gun ownership. Anybody who supports the NRA is a moron!

  4. Evie said on April 26th, 2008 at 5:21pm #

    Evie, you’re weird.

    Well, at least you’re not a Conformist:) No hobgoblin of Little Minds is gonna be fast enough to keep up with YOUR switcheroonies, so I’m not even gonna try.



  5. HR said on April 26th, 2008 at 7:07pm #

    Oh, come on. The guy was an actor, not some god. Sounds like the author is around my age, since I grew up watching Heston movies, too, but never held the guy in awe any more than John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. They were just movies and the people in them were just acting, after all. It was fantasy, like what you saw on TV (with mild apologies to any Trekkies). The movies were fiction for the most part, or badly rendered history. Hero worship of actors has always amazed me … I mean why would anyone give a good goddamn who actors are voting for, or what their politics are in general?

    Hell, even the premise of Soylent Green was utter nonsense. If your population is running our of food production capability, you don’t solve the problem by growing livestock (human corpses in the movie), you grow plants and feed them directly to the humans … or you watch people starve. Too much energy is lost in the intermediate conversion from plant to livestock.

  6. Kevin Carson said on April 26th, 2008 at 9:38pm #

    Recently when I heard Rev. Wright’s comments about the U.S. government being run by a gang of criminals, and “America’s chickens coming home to roost,” my only response was “Yeah–so?”

    And that was my reaction back in the ’90s to the stuff Heston and Wayne LaPierre said about guns and government tyranny.

    I get a lot more shocked and morally outraged by what the expressions of “moderate” opinion I hear from the suits of the Corporate Center: the kind of people who used to appear on Crossfire, about half an inch to the left and right of center, respectively.

    I’m probably as left-wing as 99% of the population, and I have absolutely zero problem with the gun rights. My only problem with the NRA is their wussy “law-abiding citizen” crap and their friendliness to the police state. Every right we have, we have not because some benevolent government granted it, but because our ancestors forced government–at gunpoint–to recognize it. And we only keep those rights we are able to continue forcing them to recognize. After almost thirty years of Meese, Reno and Ashcroft, I wouldn’t think that was so hard to understand. And after an endless series of Abner Louimas, Cory Mayes and Katherine Johnsons, I’d a hell of a lot rather leave the guns in the hands of ordinary people and TAKE THEM AWAY from the cops (along with their tasers, pepper spray and batons).

    Moore’s problem is he’s not really a leftist at all, but a good liberal who trusts government (if only it’s put in the hands of good liberals). He admits himself that the U.S. government were the “good guys” back in WWII. Shedding all the goo-goo civics class rhetoric, “Good Guy” FDR engaged in rivalry with Japan over the markets and resources of the Western Pacific, and got us into an imperial war. In so doing, he created a military-industrial complex and permanent warfare state that have continued ever since, and installed the U.S. as enforcer of a corporate world order. The truth is, notwithstanding the official Art Schlesinger version of history, the “liberals” are just the left wing of the corporate-state establishment that’s run this country since the late 19th century.

  7. hp said on April 27th, 2008 at 8:11am #

    He also handed half of Europe to his good buddy ‘Uncle Joe,’ the current record holder.

  8. HR said on April 27th, 2008 at 12:25pm #

    Well, not exactly “handed over” half of Europe to Stalin. Stalin’s army did most of the bleeding and dying in Europe, though you wouldn’t know it to read our history books. Our leaders were desperate to get troops into France and on their way to Germany before Stalin took ALL of Europe, no “handing over” involved at all. It also seems unlikely that Stalin would have willingly given up any of the territory his armies had taken, all of the megalomaniac Patton’s bellicosity aside. Fortunately, a semblance of reason prevailed on the part of the Allies, and we didn’t get involved in a land war with the Russians, one which we might damned well have lost.

  9. M.Landa said on April 27th, 2008 at 6:57pm #

    Heston was a lackey of the state and gave his significant “amen” to the invasion of Vietnam. Three million people were killed there. I can understand sentiment for the Vietnamese only.

  10. hp said on April 27th, 2008 at 7:47pm #

    Dream on. Patton was ready to take all of Europe AND Russia.
    The Russians did indeed die like leaves and at the end were devastated. The US was at peak production and Patton, with the Waffen SS (talk about crap history books), would have ran over the Russians easily. All the way to Moscow.
    He hated the Jewish Bolsheviks beyond any other and predicted exactly what would and did happen.
    My father was there. Called to be a witness at Nuremberg. 25th Cavalry, 4th armor. He and all his buddies assumed Patton was killed for saying too much and planning on saying even more about Uncle Joe, FDR and the coming tragedy which did indeed materialize.

  11. Hue Longer said on April 28th, 2008 at 1:31am #

    I agree with all of that Kevin Carson

    Gore Vidal has made fun of Charlton Heston’s understanding of the roles he played (at least as Ben Hur–who was rewritten by Vidal to be a homosexual prior to where the story starts). I loved those three sci-fi movies too, but I don’t give Heston any credit unless I’m presented with evidence that he injected social commentary into them himself– Just like I don’t give him any credit for rightward or seemingly rightward positions he took. He read a good script, good for him and the movies he did

  12. Hue Longer said on April 28th, 2008 at 1:33am #

    Patton knew how to use up more men than was nessesary…what a hero!

  13. HR said on April 28th, 2008 at 1:46pm #

    HP, a fellow name of Hitler made the same mistake of underestimating the Soviets late in the war, even as Soviet production was increasing and Hitler’s forces were being driven out of Russia. If the Allies had attacked the Soviets, their losses would have been catastrophic, and the outcome dubious. I also don’t buy into the myth that Soviet physicists were too dumb to have developed nuclear weapons on their own.