The death of Charlton Heston two days ago at age 84 has once again brought out all the termites from the woodwork — those who think Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe were equals in popular culture, and who feed on the downfall of Anna and great individuals just the same. Uppermost in reporters’ obituaries are a still of Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) — as if to imply Heston thought he personally had that power — his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and the fact that, in later life, he blotted his liberal copybook as head of the National Rifle Association. It’s hardly a unique failing for a star actor to believe they have superior abilities in other directions — Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Maclaine, Arnie Schwarzennegger, Oprah Winfrey to name a few — so I will concentrate on Heston’s legacy in the main event of his life.
At the height of his career from 1956 to 1968 he was the foremost screen figure in historical roles. It is hard to believe that he was something of a fluke for his role as Moses. From his mid-twenties he had played such demanding epic roles as Marc Antony, Andrew Jackson and Buffalo Bill. And Cecil B DeMille himself had used him as the central figure in the contemporary blockbuster The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). For Ben Hur (1959), made by William Wyler for MGM, Heston was some way down the list in line for the role, behind Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando and one or two others. But it is hard to picture now anyone but Heston as the modern Ben Hur.
Kirk Douglas made good attempts to impinge on Heston’s historical epic territory with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ulysses (both 1955), The Vikings (1958) and Spartacus (1960); Gregory Peck with David and Bathsheba (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and a few other more tame costumers; Burt Lancaster the same. But The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur each set spectacular box-office records — the only films to even approach Gone With the Wind in earnings in the twenty years since.
Chuck went on in El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) and then when overblown costume epics suddenly stopped returning their massive outlay — as with Cleopatra and, spectacularly, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) — one star carried on unaffected, still drawing crowds into The Greatest Story Ever Told as John the Baptist, The Agony and the Ecstasy as Michelangelo, The Warlord (all 1965), Khartoum (1966) as General Gordon, and of course Planet of the Apes (1968) as a futuristic hero of the human race.
Most of these films he carried by himself as sole box-office draw, and along the way out-acted such prestigious names as Laurence Olivier. Yet, never once did he appear in the annual top 10 box-office stars lists. This fact is incomprehensible in an age when Samuel L jackson can claim to be all-time box-office champion by virtue of appearing in some of the biggest box-office takers in history through an era of outlandish prices — even though unrecognizable in Star Wars and others.
It has been said by film historians that he was not overly popular with audiences because his portrayals were impersonal, not intimate enough to engage the viewers on a deeply personal level. If this is so, it is my guess they were suitably awestruck by the fact that Heston appeared to be whatever monumental figure he was playing and certain didn’t need — or wheedle for — audience sympathy in the way that ‘great’ actors like Brando, Olivier and Laughton did.