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Remembering Charlton Heston: Our Extraordinary Man in Hollywood

Before 2023 recedes too far in the past, conservatives should mark the centennial of the late Charlton Heston’s birth.

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Credit: Nationaal Archief

Before 2023 recedes too far in the past, conservatives should mark the centennial of the late Charlton Heston’s birth. Heston not only fought back against Hollywood’s leftward political drift, but, over a long entertainment career, he courageously embodied values of family, work, civility, and principle that made him one of America’s greatest film icons.  

Heston was born on October 4, 1923, starting childhood in the idyllic Michigan backwoods until suffering the searing loss and separation that came with his parents’ divorce. The young boy never forgot an enduring life lesson about the wellspring of happiness. Across a remarkable career in which Heston would reach the top of Hollywood’s glitterati, bask in international adulation, and dine with world leaders, he always kept family as his touchstone, remaining devoted to his wife Lydia until death and making fatherhood his highest duty. 

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Heston’s youthful passion for acting led to a scholarship to study theater at Northwestern University. After World War II service in the Aleutians, he and his young actress wife went off to New York to make their theater careers on the Broadway stage. Heston’s natural skill set, rugged stage presence, and old-fashioned persistence paid off as he established himself in early live-television productions in New York. Hollywood then found him.

Heston began a film career that would put him in Hollywood’s first tier with the 20th century’s finest dramatic actors such as Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and James Stewart. A common theme of their cinematic storytelling was the portrayal of flawed characters and bitter conflict that also showcased the best of the human spirit. Heston would make over 100 pictures, with some half a dozen among the finest in American filmdom. 

His masterpiece, Ben-Hur, a hugely successful MGM blockbuster released in 1959, is sweeping historical fiction worthy of rediscovery by each new generation of movie-watchers. Old Hollywood at its best, Heston’s Ben-Hur reconnects us to Roman antiquity and the world of Jesus Christ. His remarkable portrayal of the Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, immortalized from Lew Wallace’s novel, rightly won the Academy Award for Best Actor.  

Ben-Hur’s famous chariot-race spectacle, created without computerized special effects, is still among the best action sequence to come out of Hollywood. The viewer must see it on the silver screen, feel the shaking vibrations of the thundering stallions, hear the deafening crowd and absorb the panorama shots of the vast Roman colosseum. In preparing for Ben-Hur, Heston actually learned to drive a chariot rig, and the famed director, William Wyler, dedicated an incredible three months of work to capturing the crucial four minutes used in the film. Heston later described the shoot:  

Our four thousand extras found they had only to watch the race, which they did with the full frenzy of their Roman ancestors, cheering the chariots thundering through the turns. When we did the long shot of [Ben-Hur] cantering through the victory lap, our extras screamed like a Super Bowl crowd as I slowed past Messala lying crumpled on the sand.  Suddenly, with no direction, the crowd began to drop out of the stands and caper after the white team. An Arab snatched up Messala’s helmet and pranced, brandishing it like a trophy; a wonderfully spontaneous, golden moment that remains in the film.

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Ben-Hur is probably more compelling for modern audiences than Heston’s other classic from antiquity: The Ten Commandments. Shot on location in Egypt with 14,000 extras, plus 15,000 animals, Commandments was a Wagnerian-scale film production by legendary Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who spared no expense to recreate one of the Old Testament’s greatest stories. The film thrust the young Heston, cast as Moses, into international stardom and—unimaginable in today’s Hollywood—made a tremendous cinematic statement in celebration of our Western foundational values of faith, freedom, and family.  

Another great DeMille classic that featured Heston was The Greatest Show on Earth, a compelling human-interest drama of the mid-twentieth American circus in its heyday. Filmed in 1951 Technicolor, the picture leaves us a realistic docudrama of the traveling and sprawling entertainment enterprise of a three-ring circus with all its cavernous tents, aerobatic performances, and exotic creatures—all now lost to history. The Greatest Show unconsciously preserves a portrait of contented 1950s America; it records a society and time that today’s Hollywood only wants to deconstruct, but that DeMille and Heston (and other fine actors) ennobled. 

Heston’s vast film output also includes other timeless gems that, like great literature, hold up for modern viewers: El Cid; 55 Days at Peking; The Greatest Story Ever Told; Khartoum; and Midway. It was not by coincidence that Heston gravitated to retelling great historical drama; he was captivated by the subject, explaining in his memoirs:

I’d liked history in school, but always slid through to the easy B, not digging at it. When I first undertook real research, preparing parts, I began to realize what I’m now convinced is true: History is not only the most important subject, in the end it may be the only subject.

Heston developed an impressive ability to assess historical records and a thirst for character authenticity. Throughout his career, he researched intensely, reviewed and edited scripts, in preparing to recreate a wide smorgasbord of historical giants such as Richelieu, Mark Antony, and Thomas Jefferson. The actor recreated the persona of Andrew Jackson (in The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer) better than anyone in film. At its finest, Heston’s character presentation, such as his intense portrayal of Michelangelo in the 1965 drama, The Agony and the Ecstasy, made the story.

Heston always remained at home in theater, regularly interrupting his film career to return to the stage to hone his craft with some of the best, such as Laurence Olivier. Constantly demanding more of himself, Heston understood that engaging live audiences made him better on the silver screen. As with history, the actor was widely read in philosophy and literature, deeply in his element with the Bible and Shakespeare. Heston rendered several of the Stratford bard’s great characters as well as any Hollywood actor of his generation. 

On occasion, he may have carried his Shakespeare passion too far. Heston’s determination to make moving pictures out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra both flopped. The fact that Shakespeare’s rich dialogue rarely works in film never deterred the stage actor in Heston, who late in his career played in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet, which also lost money. Sadly, Heston was never captured on film performing Henry V; the actor’s commanding bass voice was perfect for delivering King Henry’s Eve of Saint Crispin’s Day speech. (Branagh, however, made Henry V into a movie and turned a profit.)

For a Hollywood overlord, Heston was remarkably self-critical and magnanimous, and, unlike other sensitive Tinsel-Town actors like Marlon Brando, he kept his ego in check for the betterment of finishing projects, in the best of the-show-must-go-on tradition. It was Heston’s personal generosity and negotiations with the studio that ensured that the 1958 Orson Welles classic Touch of Evil finally got made. Heston delivered a fine performance in Evil, but always striving for acting perfection, he later regretted portraying his Mexican police-chief character as too American. Heston lauded Welles as Hollywood’s most creative talent.  

Heston also saved director Sam Peckinpah’s bacon in completing the Western Major Dundee. Known to show up drunk on the set, Peckinpah infuriated Columbia studio executives who wanted to pull the plug on the movie; Heston saved the project by contributing his salary to cost overruns. In his memoirs, Heston still praised Peckinpah’s many talents; but he also recounted a revenge moment on the set when in frustration, the actor actually drew his saber, while mounted on horseback, and charged the annoying and besotted director. 

Comfortable riding horses and handling firearms, Heston was a natural in Westerns, starring in several fine films of the genre, including The Big Country, a William Wyler-directed saga led by Gregory Peck, whom Heston would always consider a friend and an “intelligent liberal.” Released in 1958, The Big Country gloriously portrayed the pioneering men and women who transformed the American West before a woke Hollywood remade their lore into a European occupation story. Heston considered another Western, Will Penny, the intensely personal drama of a tough loner cowboy, as one of his finest film performances. 

Many fans consider Heston’s Planet of the Apes his most innovative picture. As a 1968 statement-movie, Apes not only opened a new genre in science fiction, but its dystopic message struck an eerie nerve with Cold-War era moviegoers. The actor went on to star in other science-fiction cult classics such as Soylent Green and The Omega Man, the latter picture pairing Heston with an African-American love interest, a somewhat ground-breaking step in its day. 

Two of my favorites in the great star’s wide filmography, today certainly considered B movies, include Heston’s first Hollywood appearance: Dark City; it is a well-acted film-noir murder story showcasing a young Heston, in his late 20s, already with a commanding big-screen presence. I also recommend a forgotten sleeper entitled Secret of the Incas, an adventure story filmed on location in Peru. Heston stars as a rugged and opportunistic gringo in South America, the original Indiana Jones, freebooting through the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Interestingly, Hollywood legend also recounts several movies that Heston could have—should have—made, but for whatever reason did not. These what-if’s include replacing William Holden in the intense POW drama Stalag 17 and taking John Wayne’s role in The Longest Day. Heston also turned down Deliverance. Imagine Heston, instead of Gregory Peck, in the great 1977 biopic of General Douglas MacArthur. 

Heston’s 1995 autobiography, In the Arena, written from daily journal notes that he kept throughout his long career, is a treasure-trove of Hollywood stories that gives us the insider’s view of all the great (and non-great) films that consumed his professional life. Unlike so many other Hollywood memoirs, Heston does not whitewash or lambast, but writes thoughtfully and honestly about his many acting challenges: successes and missteps, with all the inadequacies and weaknesses. Recounting a public life in a viciously competitive business, Heston is remarkably generous.

Chuck Heston was a political man, but he was not a politician. He did consider running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in California, but wisely turned down that career change because he was in his heart a thespian. Ronald Reagan mentored Heston in politics, both men having served in one of Hollywood’s toughest jobs: president of the Screen Actors Guild. Heston did not consider Reagan a great actor, but admired Reagan’s negotiating skills and considered him a gifted statesman who “understood the idea of performance.”  

Like Reagan, Heston was a Democrat who could rightly complain that the party grew radical and left him. Heston claimed to have experienced a conservative epiphany while contemplating the famous 1964 “Goldwater for President” billboard that proclaimed: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” True or not, Heston’s conservatism steadily grew in increments; but more than an ideological right-winger, he was always a man of principles. 

Heston traveled to combat zones to show support for our troops in a conflict that he suspected Washington was mismanaging. He was proud to have supported Dr. Martin Luther King and been present for the great 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Heston would have seen fealty to the U.S. Constitution as the lodestar that guided him, consistently, to march with King and later to stand with the NRA in defense of Second Amendment rights. 

In 1988, Heston played Sir Thomas More in a television adaptation of Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, a role he savored and performed to great acclaim. Heston liked to quote More’s line in the story that expressed the actor’s own special adherence to principle and honor: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Fine theater from a great man.

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