Top Ten: Charlton Heston Essentials
Be it tent pole epics, Shakespeare, obscure early work, or later science fiction sophistication, Charlton Heston provides a variety of memorable performances and classic iconography. Here’s a starter pack featuring hokey westerns, cavalier cameos, famous blu-ray restorations, and more.
10. Three Violent People
Ex-woman of the night Anne Baxter and Confederate captain Charlton Heston settle in for blackmail, carpetbaggers, and sibling unrest in 1956’s Three Violent People. The western action, confederate regret, reconstruction dilemmas, romance, and scruples have potential, however reckless, obviously not one-armed brothers and over the top back and forth are too askew. There’s too much scandal and not enough pain or focus between uneven lies, slow plodding, and nothing that’s really all that scandalous. Though not a typical western and seemingly a more womanly oriented vehicle, the fainting and illicit pregnancy are cliché with unbuttoned Chuck putting her over his knee and letting the hoop skirt fly up more bemusing than sexy. Heston looks good in a cowboy hat and can fill the strong, hard man appeal, but the stilted script makes it tough to believe his tumultuous emotions and conflicting actions. Three Violent People could have been an epic, sweeping western, but ultimately, it’s what I like to call a “Heston Hokey” – a guilty pleasure before we see our players again in The Ten Commandments.
9. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra
Charlton Heston plays Marc Antony in the 1970 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as well as both starring in and directing the 1972 follow-up Antony and Cleopatra. This Julius Caesar isn’t as intense or cinematic as it could be thanks to sputtering pace and lengthy iambic pentameter between the treasonous actions, and undynamic characters cramp the largely faithful momentum. Fortunately, famous quotes anchor the intercut editing mirroring each stabbing slice – peppering the expected murder with a chaotic, bloody, almost ritual horror eerie. Shrewd revenge moves fast in the second hour even though Heston is not the spring chicken he was in the 1950 Julius Caesar production. Chuck looks like an overgrown cherub with a zany red comb-over and skimpy tunic, but his familiar voice and firm delivery prove Marc Antony’s worth as he weeps for all the SPQR to see. The rousing Elizabethan delivery and performances are more effortless with Heston’s direction in Antony and Cleopatra. Although the back and forth staging and separated duo are uneven in the first half, fatal soliloquies in the battle finale raise the stakes. Some drunken scenes are off the mark and perhaps Heston’s not good at directing himself playing a character so blinded by lust, but together these films make for a pleasant duo, and I wish Heston had directed more.
Mario Puzo (The Godfather) penned this star-studded 1974 disaster yarn, and the rumblings begin early for engineer Charlton Heston and his cranky wife Ava Gardner (Mogambo). Despite fleeing animals, reservoir perils, and landslide action, no one believes the big quake is imminent,and the age difference between rough Chuck and ingenue Genevieve Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days) is ridiculous. This isn’t today’s disaster a minute, and the seriousness stalls with too many characters cluttering the haphazard or disappearing in the chaos. Some implausible evacuations, cows, crumbling model work, and faux splatter are laughable and green screens or matte backgrounds are obvious, but disturbing elevator mishaps, smoke, and fire create eerie glows. Seismic sciences, probability curves, and scale debates set off the social commentary with ignored Mexican victims, so-called religious freaks, negative treatment of soldiers, and racist insults as red tape at the top acerbates the situation. Crisis scenes sans dialogue let the trembling bridges, falling bricks, smashed cars, and buckling highways speak. We’ve seen far worse than this fiction, and Earthquake is both of its time in lacking a narrative resolution yet progressive with some seventies cynicism and a few dramatic surprises. We love it when our stars rescue puppies, and Charlton Heston saves not one, but two babes.
Mentally disabled but mysterious and gifted Christopher Lambert (Highlander) joins old Hollywood veterans including Charlton Heston, Shirley Jones (Elmer Gantry), Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun), Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family), and more at a care home in this surprisingly tender 1998 tale. Faded glories, past regrets, elderly mistakes, and cynicism give way to hopeful outlooks, peace with oneself, and never too late romance as Gideon inspires the residents to press on with new opportunities in their twilight years. Granted there are some typical stylings with a made for television feeling. Saccharin moments such as putting on plays, nursing home dances, Florence Nightingale syndrome, and misunderstood love triangles at times stray into Hallmark territory. Fortunately, the crotchety humor, enchanting possibilities, and old school stars lift up the simple joys and forever young discoveries. Sometimes there’s a bittersweet price to pay for bringing such delight, but this charming story is worth the pursuit and doesn’t deserve to be somewhat obscure.
6. The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers
Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Superman) and director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) infamously doubled the adventure with 1973’s The Three Musketeers and its 1974 sequel The Four Musketeers, but both films remain charming with supersized Dumas spirit thanks to crescendos, swords slices, bawdy drinking, and cavalier attitudes. The intense pace is done in-camera, and well-edited comedic timing leaves room for French quips and tag team dead pans. Michael York (Logan’s Run), Oliver Reed (Oliver!), and company are up to any task with the right delivery, period gravitas, intrigue, or wit. Charlton Heston’s Cardinal Richelieu has parades to himself and pays the bystanders to be there, stands out in his purple regalia at court, and talks out both sides of his mouth to the King. He captures people and tortures them only to release them with money so they will become his friend – effortlessly creating a network of spies and manipulation while Christopher Lee’s (Horror of Dracula) Rochefort does his dirty work. Richelieu has the most dialogue thanks to his numerous plots, but poisons quickly resolved the wither tos and why fors as the good guys versus the bad guys finish their daring, tremendously entertaining fights upon frosty bridges and frozen lakes.
5. Touch of Evil
At first glance, the infamy of this Orson Welles’ (Citizen Kane) 1958 complex noir thriller classic comes to the forefront. What the heck is Charlton Heston doing playing a Mexican? o_O That mustache isn’t fooling anybody, Chuck! Thankfully, unprecedented tracking shots, ticking bombs, international investigations, and corrupt officials intermix for wonderfully seedy suspense. Strategic lighting and Oscar winner Henry Mancini’s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) music also up the onscreen tension as a creepy Mercedes McCambridge (All the Kings Men) helps terrorize Janet Leigh (Psycho) amid worse ambiguity and insinuations pushing the envelope for the time. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution) almost steals the show as Heston tries to ensnare Welles amid more violence and interconnected crimes. Depending upon the version you see, the editing and pacing suffers between the studio interference and reshoots. However, despite the swarthy stereotypes, Welles’ restored 111-minute version is worth a fresh look.
4. Soylent Green
Unemployment, homelessness, heatwaves, and hunger are rampant in an over populated 2022 New York City. The poor sleep in permanently parked cars, but the wealthy live in luxury apartments with hot showers and air conditioning. Long lines for short rations lead to riots between the haves and have nots, and Detective Charlton Heston investigates a murder at Soylent Industries – a powerful purveyor of nutritional supplements made from plankton. Disturbingly nonchalant violence in sacred places escalates to truths told in confession that are too much for a priest to bear, and researcher Edward G. Robinson uncovers a secret, disturbing ingredient as screaming crowds are tossed into creepy forklifts and hoisted into dumpsters. Bodies are taken to waste disposal centers, but the elderly remember when there used to be ceremonies for the dead. Scenes sans music echo with droning machinery and sad euthanasia opportunities are emotional in exceptional one-man reveals unknown to the audience thanks to silent mouthings, headphones, and wide-eyed, shocked reactions. Good Old Post Apocalyptic Chuck goes through the motions of his dog eat dog existence sweaty and unbothered as he pilfers booze and satin pillowcases from his crime scene. He treats himself to soap and cigarettes, but he’s angry over how most people aren’t angry about their dire situation. His distraught earnestness leads him to take action because he must – uncovering processing plants, conveyor belts, and the now famous revelation.
3. Planet of the Apes
Astronaut Charlton Heston crashes on an unknown planet with primitive humans and talking, gun-toting apes who refuse to believe his extraterrestrial origin in 1968’s Planet of the Apes – offering unforgettable moments, perennial quotes, and speculative insights that keep on giving. Chuck’s Taylor traveled to the stars in an effort to find something better than man, and initially, he thinks he’ll be running the place when he sees the sorry state of humanity. Instead, he finds a world where man is at the bottom, and so many memorable, tragic observations and species reversals layer Planet of the Apes. Black crewmen end up in a museum, lobotomies, and gelding programs hope that “man can be domesticated,” and a gorilla’s eulogy proclaims, “I never met an ape I didn’t like.” Although we may laugh at “human see, human do,” the more you watch Planet of the Apes, the more mind-blowing nuggets you discover. In spite of the giveaway title, the bitter Twilight Zone tone from writer Rod Serling builds toward the gorillas on horseback shocker, and the action and simian make up designs remain well done. Heston is rough around the edges, a rugged leader and cocky explorer exploring for the wrong reasons who ultimately uncovers the disturbing truth. Once he is stripped of all human dignity and helpless in this topsy turvy world, we are instantly on Taylor’s side. Heston gains our sympathy as the lone antagonist with no hope of proving himself because “some apes, it seems, are more equal than others.”
2. The Ten Commandments
Yearly network airings of this 1956 epic keep the Moses memes and over the top fifties melodrama in our collective mind. Liberties are taken on the Biblical sources, the sound is big and the voices are low, and framing lines on the matte paintings and incomplete special effects are visible on the otherwise sumptuous blu-ray release. Simple editing with a master track only cut for reactions or spectacles may seem slow to some audiences, talkative or stage-like. However, from alluring Anne Baxter and wicked Edward G. Robinson to the slinky Vincent Price (House of Usher), Lily Munster herself Yvonne De Carlo, and more – this Cecil B. DeMille (Samson & Delilah) magnum opus brims with top drawer entertainment. The solid, profound script provides touching quotations and relatable sentiment thanks to inspiration, love, jealousy, and deliverance. The personal stories are intimate amid an ancient scale brought to life with rousing scores, Oscar winning cinematography, delicious Edith Head (The Heiress) costumes, colorful hieroglyphics, and detailed Egyptian designs. Fires upon Mount Sinai, the glow of the Burning Bush, and that freaky green mist coming for the first-born lead to golden idols, Exodus, chariot pursuits, and that stunning parting of the Red Sea. The Ten Commandments is not without flaws, yet it’s a must see classic cinema achievement, and although this is a Charlton Heston essential, I can’t help myself, I love Yul Brynner’s (The King and I) voice and presence.
Best Actor Charlton Heston’s embittered quest for revenge and his freeing encounter with the awesome healing power of Christ in Best Director William Wyler’s Best Picture Ben-Hur looks so, so good on blu-ray. The in-scene depth of scenery, perspective, set design, locations, and attention to detail bring the inspirational to life alongside passionate performances, grand overtures, enchanting stallions, and groundbreaking chariot sequences. Wyler knew how to use the scope of his physical sets, and it shows with a realistic, vintage patina that today’s CGI cannot recreate. The opening Nativity scene, Roman mosaics, centurion armor, rhythmic galley action, and intense naval battles create a colorful palette and atmosphere full of zest as we follow Judah’s incredible personal journey from elite status, accidents, betrayal, and servitude to heroic rescues, charioteers, water bearer, and believer. The Sermon on the Mount, leprosy miracles and the Crucifixion are epic events made personal with must-see spirit, redemption, and hope.