Monday, April 07, 2008


R.I.P. Charlton Heston

With the death of Charlton Heston, it seems an appropriate time to bring up his best movies. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Heston's movies were unforgettable. The top five, in the order they were released:

1. The Ten Commandments(1956): I don't know if it still does, but this movie used to air every year around Easter. And I remember watching it every year as a kid. And it never got old.

Incredibly, Cecil B. DeMille made a silent version of The Ten Commandments back in 1923. But the 1956 version is the one everyone remembers, for good reason: It was a lavish spectacle. This movie was the definition of the phrase "Hollywood epic". DeMille took some liberties with the historical accuracy, even the Biblical accuracy, but he was true to the intent of the story.

Of course, Heston's Moses was the rock-jawed hero at the center of the story. But the rest of the cast reads like a "who's who" of mid-20th century Hollywood: Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, Vincent Price, and John Carradine.

I won't call The Ten Commandments Heston's finest work as an actor. But taken as a whole, this movie was the best he did, simply because the film has become a cultural icon.

2. Ben Hur(1959): This movie did for Ancient Rome what The Ten Commandments did for Ancient Egypt. I can almost picture the executive in the movie studio: "Ok, we're making a movie about a guy who goes through a deep religious struggle, set against the backdrop of an ancient period. Now who would be a good actor for the lead? Hmmm..."

Seriously, Heston was a little better in this role, but the movie as a whole pales next to The Ten Commandments, simply because the supporting cast wasn't as good.

3. The Agony and the Ecstasy(1965): This one is my personal favorite of Heston's films. One of the few films where Heston wasn't the big-chested, rock-jawed hero. Instead, Heston played the artist Michelangelo, offset by Rex Harrison's Pope Julius, as Julius gets Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel.

Heston's character struggles in this film aren't quite so "over the top" as in his more famous films. This was Heston at his finest.

4. Planet of the Apes(1968): "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!"

Everyone remembers that line, but what they forget about this film is that it was made during the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Science fiction, at it's best, gives us a mirror to the human condition. Planet of the Apes looked at racism.

In the movie, you can hear apes justify their own superiority to humans, such as humans aren't smart enough, and you are reminded of the old racist arguments against blacks.

The great irony of Heston's most famous line from the film is that it shows our own prejudices when it comes to apes. Within the framework of a planet where apes rule over humans, it becomes an example of reverse racism.

Even more ironic is that Heston's most important film is considered just another science fiction film today.

5. The Omega Man(1971): I was so proud of myself when I saw an ad for Will Smith's I Am Legend and thought, "Boy, that sounds like The Omega Man." It should, since it's based on the same novel (I Am Legend, written in 1954 by Richard Matheson).

The point of The Omega Man is that the same science which can destroy mankind can also be used to save it.

Heston's character, as "the last man on earth", would be an unusual role for any actor, and still stands out among his many movies.

-El Cid(1961): It has been a long time since I have seen this one, and it doesn't really stand out for me, but most critics rate it as one of his best.
-The Three Musketeers(1973) and The Four Musketeers(1974): Heston was deliciously evil in a supporting role as Cardinal Richelieu.
-Airport 1975(1974): In my opinion, this one was better than the original Airport. Also, it is a classic example of the 1970's disaster films genre.
-Midway(1976): One of the greatest WWII movies, but Heston almost gets lost in the all-star cast (Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Wagner).


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