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Charlton Heston: 1200 B.C. - 2022 A.D.

Stephen Bracco

Though the late actor failed to stem the liberal hippie apocalypse in his trio of 1960s sci-fi classics, he did find a true love in guns.

If ever there was a Hollywood actor who belonged in period costume, swinging sword or scepter, who looked utterly lost within the domesticating confines of, say, a chair, it was Charlton Heston, a.k.a. Moses, El Cid, Judah Ben-Hur, John the Baptist, Michelangelo. Heston spent most of his film time where he belonged: on a horse, behind a chariot, in the desert, in chains with muscles greased. Custom-made for the late 1950s and early 1960s sword-and-sandal epic, Heston set the standard for the hero who wears his salvation on his torn sleeve. In The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, El Cid, The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Greatest Story Ever Told he forged an interpretation of Christianity as colorful epic adventure, yet by 1968, past his box-office prime, he took a weird detour with a trio of sci-fi dystopias: Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Heston was, by summer-of-love standards, a corny relic and perfectly suited to these films' central conflicts of the old world versus the new.

The transition from Bible epic to apocalyptic adventure is a smooth one, considering science fiction's end-times themes and concern with the nature and fate of humanity. Heston goes out still playing the determined, tortured hero of his earlier days, except the image references now are not to the Bible, but to societal concerns -- the bomb, war, the environment, and above all, permissive youth culture. Yet by the time Heston had gone from the beginnings of Christianity via DeMille-style epics to the end of the world, his grit-teeth religiosity has been replaced by harsh fatalism. Not only had the world come to an end, it probably wasn't worth saving to begin with, and since "the world" is other people, these late 1960s and early 1970s films serve up a portrait of American alienation a long way from Heston's confident early portraits of sweaty salvation. In the later sci-fi films, the Heston persona is at odds with a world gone wrong, and he battles not only bad guys but also the isolation he once cherished but which now fails to satisfy. By the end of each film he learns to love again, 1960s style, but society will have none of it, and he returns to the isolation from which he came, defeated but unbowed.

At the start of Planet of the Apes, Heston, as Taylor, is a bitter astronaut who, just before dropping into hypersleep to awaken in ape-world, wonders into his flight recorder just how low mankind has sunk during his deep-space absence. Yet he's no peaceful philosopher: "If this is the best they've got here," he says, judging the alien world's mute humanoids, "in six months we'll be running this planet." Right on cue, the ape hunting party appears and cancels his coup with a bullet to the voice box. The first look Taylor gets at his new masters -- a gorilla on horseback -- and the first ape-speak he hears, "Smile," says it all: not only have the monkeys taken over the zoo, they demand that you like it.

Co-adapted from Pierre Boulle's novel by TV's high priest of alienation, Rod Serling, Apes is an extended Twilight Zone, more down-the-rabbit-hole allegory than sci-fi adventure, with Taylor as the standard Serling hero dropped into a society so xenophobic that it has no place for him precisely because he is its utter manifestation. Assimilation is impossible for Taylor and not just because he's a "freak"; he's a misanthrope and his hatred for society has achieved its purest expression. Ape world is, in a sense, all Taylor's creation. The joke behind Apes is that, of course, toothy and ripped Heston is superior to the hunched simians. Yet Apes is a comeuppance movie and Taylor must eat humble pie throughout. The story is essentially over once his voice returns and the genre's action-adventure instincts kick in: Taylor breaks free on the night before he's due for a gelding, with his cynicism -- and his balls -- intact.

"Don't trust anyone over 30," Taylor advises a young radical chimp in his farewell scene. Happiest aping such youth-culture skepticism, it's only the first time in these three sci-fi incarnations Heston tries to ally himself with the younger generation's politics while maintaining his favorite role as lone hero. Taylor has by the final reel become a supposed friend to those struggling for truth, having fought for -- and lost -- the respect of the ape elders. If Taylor's changed at all, it's in his willingness to give a goodbye kiss to she-chimp Dr. Zira; sure, his heart's been defrosted by his ordeal, in good Christian fashion, but there's nothing left for Taylor to do except drop out of a society that in the end finds him "so damned ugly".

In The Omega Man, mankind's abuses have again brought civilization to a crashing halt. A more haggard Heston plays military scientist Colonel Robert Neville, and at one point a little girl asks him, "Are you God?" It's a natural question for the actor who got plenty of sand in his eyes as Moses/Judah Ben-Hur/El Cid. Back then the baddies were, respectively, Egyptians, Romans and Muslims, but this time they're bloodthirsty albino penitents led by TV anchorman turned Luddite big mouth, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). A military virus has killed off nearly everyone and an empty Los Angeles is Neville's oyster: for fun he watches Woodstock in a movie theater, ubiquitous machine gun as his date. He recites the film's words of universal love along with the now-dead flower children, teeth bared in Heston's trademark squint.

The longhairs are better off idealized as celluloid memory. Burning the books and art of the old culture, Matthias' Family damns the technological world, of which "Neville-the-devil" is a last reminder. In long black drag with mirror shades and facial scabs, the Family's members stand in as threatening urban hippies, bombarding Neville's home with accusing chants and catapulted fireballs. Refusing to play scapegoat, Neville rises to the challenge, machine gun in hand, showing the black-robed freaks what a last stand really looks like. Guns are sinful to the group-minded Family, but it has always been the rugged individualist's weapon of choice.

Yet Neville's victory is short-lived. Though he finds a woman and soon gets down to repopulating the world over cocktails and heavy-stringed bachelor-pad music, like Taylor in Apes, Neville's rediscovered humanity leads to a dignified failure. While in Apes it's off on a horse into the sunset, in Omega Man, it's martyrdom for the sake of the good hippies: rural, apple-cheeked children who will live off both the land and a jar of dead Neville's virus-free blood. "Man, you're hostile," one kid says on the eve of Neville's final battle. "You just don't belong." In fact, the Heston persona would have it no other way: He belongs in the pre-hippie world, and the lingering final shot of his lifeless body in military flak suit is meant to score points with the boys currently saving the world over in Vietnam.

In Soylent Green's final scene, Heston, as New York detective Thorn, cries the immortal line, "Soylent Green is people!" revealing the film's awful secret of state-sponsored cannibalism. The line just as well could be identifying the real enemy: The year is 2022, and New York City has a population of 40 million impoverished welfare parasites. Heston's future world is again too far gone for saving, and "people" are the problem, or more specifically, the mass youth culture that has no respect for over-the-hill heroes. In this future, riots are dispersed by police-driven plows, and detective Thorn becomes radicalized only when, after the death of Ten Commandments co-star Edward G. Robinson (in his last role), he follows the old man's corpse to the factory that transforms it into the titular crackers. The only role left for Heston on the cusp of the environmentalist 1970s is whistle-blower. Will paternalism free the apathetic masses? The future is as uncertain as the final shot of Thorn's bloodied, upraised hand -- power to the people or take a bite?

Together, this trio of sci-fi films were Heston's lowbrow swan song, and what lingers are his iconic poses: Taylor on the beach with nuked Lady Liberty, Neville's Vietnam-homage death, and Thorn's raised activist hand. But despite their social themes, however, these stories resolve in a very private space: the loner route is seen as the best defense against social upheaval, a viewpoint that gloomier sci-fi films shares with the western and film noir. The cast-of-thousands muscular religious faith of Heston's epics in the end was supplanted by the individual’s exhausted shrug. The only solution offered by these films is a dignified withdrawal. "Don't try to follow us," the future N.R.A. spokesman Heston says at the end of Apes, as he displays his rifle, "I'm pretty handy with this thing."

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