The lost, and sadly under-appreciated genre of late 1960’s-70’s dystopian science-fiction –- you know, those movies everyone watches and secretly loves but outwardly pans as hysterically dated, paranoid, socialist and overacted – had no better friend and hero than in the late Charlton Heston. His sincerity and yes, grace allowed these films to rise above Hollywood schlock. He had played with what seemed enormous ease a biblical legend, a medieval warrior – a straight arrow of the law – but in this gritty zeitgeist of the shrinking individual, Heston became at once the harbinger of doom and the reluctant hero of freedom, non-conformity and personal dignity.
My favorite Heston.
It was the period before he was brought into the fold of the conservative movement — where he remained until his death a beloved spokesman for the National Rifle Association and a generation of angry middle Americans fed up with the culture wars — and the period after he had more than proven his chops as the archetypal hero in epics like Ben Hur and El Cid. In life, America was at a crossroads, and I think it might be argued, that Heston’s politics were at one too.
How else could a 46-year-old actor, one who — unlike other men of his time struggling to adapt to Hollywood’s new post-1950’s existentialism — didn’t need the work, so effortlessly slip into the roles of the transcendent hero in The Planet of the Apes (1968), and The Omega Man (1971), and Soylent Green (1973)? He not only gave those films the pathos they required to advance their allegorical visions, but became synonymous in a way with their iconic leads: Taylor, Thorn and Neville. Funny, as new popular culture had all but thrown over the square-jawed greats of their daddy’s generation, fans nonetheless recognized that nothing less than Heston’s chiseled looks, hot temper, methodical overacting, moral clarity — and yes, chivalry — wouldn’t do.
I love this Heston. On screen, in these films, particularly as Taylor in Planet and Thorn in Soylent Green, he starts off as a slab of meat – all muscle and simmering energy – part of the very establishment that conspired to plunder the American dream — but through a series of discoveries, and awful epiphanies, he employs a latent sense of justice and compassion to take a stand. And he always does, and in his way, he succeeds. Often sacrificing himself to push his world one step closer to salvation.
One cannot deny that these movies were made at a point in the counterculture where various movements – environmentalism, anti-Nuke, feminism, black nationalism – were quickly becoming (mis) appropriated by Hollywood and the establishment at large. One could argue that the aforementioned screenplays suffered the same fate. Towards the end of Planet, just before the iconic scene where Taylor screams “You maniacs! You blew it up!” at the feet of a half-buried Lady Liberty, younger ape Lucius petulantly declares, “you just can’t trust the older generation.”
This, and even more ham-handed one-liners (Planet co-screenwriter and late Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was never known for understatement!) led, of course, to plenty of knee-slapping spoofs in years to come, which unfortunately, have become, at least in the mainstream, more memorable than the movies themselves. Saturday Night Live’s spin on Heston’s last line in Soylent Green — “it’s people!” – became, at once, all that people who hadn’t seen the movie needed to know. Overacting, bad f/x and preposterous plot lines — plus a touch of bell-bottoms and shag carpeting – perfect Mystery Science Theater fare, right? As for Planet, Heston’s line “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” is as ubiquitous as it gets, tapped more than 20 years later by the Simpsons, in the Springfield community theater’s rendition of Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off.
I argue that for decent directing, solid grounding in original material – I refer particularly to Richard Matheson, another brilliant Twilight Zone contributor and sci-fi master, who wrote I am Legend, on which Omega is based – and the talents of Heston, these movies cannot be so easily disregarded.
In Planet, Heston is not only a son of the metaphoric America, doomed by its excesses and ignorance, but he plays its salvation as the Revolutionary prototype, muscular and bold, smart and relentless, and as we like to often romanticize, having a particular aversion for shackles, on himself or anyone else. He gallops away, armed, with his Eve, astride a horse, to meet his fate. As mentioned before, it isn’t pretty, but we know, wherever he goes, Taylor will do us proud. There is hope.
In Omega, he’s a former military scientist, apparently the last man on earth after bio-warfare rips it to shreds. He is lonely and nostalgic, as he’s forced to slaughter by day an army of nocturnal mutant humans, fanatically led by a former anti-nuke activist and television reporter who has convinced his followers that modernity – and Neville – are responsible for their circumstances. Finding other survivors, Neville rediscovers his own humanity and leading a limited defense for the last remnants of civilization, dies a martyr.
In Soylent Green, he is a lunk of a cop, tempered by his sweet old roommate, played by Edward G. Robinson (in his last film), who regales him with stories about when there was real food and streams and trees and such. It is 2022, overpopulation and pollution has turned the city of Manhattan into a roiling mass of dirty bodies, corruption and greed. Dickens on steroids. Led by illumination into the terrifying conclusion that the only corporation worth a dime left, Soylent, is grinding up people (in collusion with the US government) for food, leads him, to again, resist and take a bullet to get the truth out: that the oceans are gone and Soylent Green is indeed, people.
I know apocalypse-by-overpopulation seems as unlikely as the ascot coming back, but look at China today. Not only is it destroying its environment at a rate far beyond any industrial revolution in the western world, but it – and its US corporate partners – is foisting upon us its tainted food and pharmaceuticals, and toxic toys, which we over-consume and waste at an alarming rate.
Government is still not to be trusted. The prospect of a police state, gathering long before 9/11, is more than a just Hollywood conceit. We wage war, and corporations and politicians profit. As Americans, we revel in our ignorance in rebellion to elitism and class, but in this egalitarian pose, we shackle ourselves.
I’d like to think that Heston, a World War II veteran who once joined black civil rights leaders in picketing segregated establishments, campaigned for JFK and opposed the Vietnam War, took on the roles of Tyler, Thorn and Neville because of the very civil libertarian impulse that was the measure of the man off-screen. That he became a strident advocate for the conservative cause less than a decade later, I believe, was a response to the pendulum swinging the other way, the very forces he championed had become the oppressors, the social slavemasters cracking the whip for conformity.
He raised his rifle in the air not so much as to shoot, but to defend.
We cannot presume how Heston, 84, really felt at the end of his long life (reports are that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s) about things like the Patriot Act, the War in Iraq, the US torture policy, the corporate homogenization of the culture, the emasculation of the American worker, Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh promoting the “Obama the Magic Negro” video on this show.
What I can posit, is that despite the seemingly huge divergence between the roles Heston chose to pursue during the late 1960’s and 70’s and his final role, as the fierce face of the NRA, the same lifeblood courses through both. He seemed to be guided by simple human truths of justice and liberty, and unlike many of the big box office draws of today (Tom Cruise and Will Smith come to mind), he never used his roles as vehicles for his own narcissism and the movies were better for it.
Perhaps like the human exhibit in the ape’s museum of natural history, Heston is best immortalized as a (endangered) man of his time. I hope not. I turn on the TV most times today – the Sci-Fi Channel most definitely included — and I don’t have much confidence. One hopes that a pendulum shift is in order. Until then, I’ll keep watching Turner Classic Movies.