The 1970s, at least pre-Star Wars, was surely the golden age of the anti-hero in cinema and television. The majority of heroes on celluloid and the boob tube were angry "little" men like Kojak, Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey from Death Wish...hardened, cynical men and vigilantes who bent the rules (otherwise known as the law) and who were disdained by society at large but championed nonetheless as heroic for bucking the system and cutting through red tape. Given such "heroes," that's why I'm so glad that - as my young and curious intellect formed - I had other examples to admire: heroes like William Shatner's Captain Kirk, Martin Landau's Commander Koenig, Darren McGavin's Kolchak, and Charlton Heston's iconic science fiction heroes: Taylor, Neville and Thorn.
I don't know -- I could be wildly off base here -- perhaps Heston's roles were those of the "anti-hero" too, but there was something unique and special about this actor; his performances and the parts he selected. Heston's genre roles always put him in conflict with the establishment and society too, but universally against a kind of inimical, anti-humanist society, whether one run by intelligent apes, subterranean mutants, evil (cannibalistic...) cabals, or albino night-dwellers.
This persona worked for me because -- even as a kid -- I knew that Heston had really sharp edges. He played tough, sometimes embittered characters but ones who ultimately - when push came to shove - fought (often to the death...) to do the right thing. He always seemed to play characters who didn't believe in the decency of humanity but because of circumstances was put in the position of defending humanity. He seemed to always play "the truth seeker."
I find something incredibly noble and moving about that aesthetic. If Heston were a typical Hollywood leftist/liberal I suspect this ethos wouldn't have worked. Instead, it's rather amazing to see a right-wing ideologue in the most leftist mainstream genre films of a cinematic age: Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). A left leaner discovering over-population and cannibalistic corporatism in Soylent Green is preaching to the choir...but right-winger Heston vetting it is a practical revelation. A left-leaner finding out that man destroyed himself with nuclear missiles in Planet of the Apes...same thing. I don't think I'm saying this well, but it's a kind of alchemy. It was and remains perfect casting.
One of my movie critic heroes and seminal influences, the late Pauline Kael said it better and more eloquently than I can. She explained Heston's presence in this manner (in regards to his role in Planet of the Apes):
"Physically, Heston with his perfect, lean, hipped body, is a god-like hero, built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him, because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power - the physical attraction and admiration one feels toward the beauty of strength as well as the moral revulsion one feels toward the ugliness of violence...He is the perfect American Adam to work off some American guilt feelings or self-hatred on." (Pauline Kael, New Yorker: Apes Must Be Remembered, Charlie," "February 17, 1968, page 108.
I know this next statement will read or sound corny, but to my young mind (and somewhere in my arrested adult mind...), I watch Charlton Heston in his sci-fi films and I say: yes, this is what a man is. This is what a man looks like. (God, I sound like I'm quoting Fight Club, I fear.) I realize I'll probably get skewered for that admission, from both sides of the political spectrum, but this is how I feel. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this idea: In Heston's genre performances there is a man who believes one thing (for good reason) but embraces reality and modulates his views, while still being true to himself. He chooses based on the situation at hand, not on his previous belief system. His characters aren't "faith based" in the sense that they believe on Wednesday what they believe on Monday - regardless of what happened on Tuesday. Instead, he deals, he adjusts, but he is still powerful, still an individual, still true to his core self. He isn't a hypocrite, he's a realist and a pragmatist. He is what an American hero used to be like Patriotic...but open to input, even if it flies in the face of old values and tradition.
I have to admit that as much as I appreciate Michael Moore and love his films (particularly Sicko), Bowling for Columbine fell apart for me in the finale when he accosted Charlton Heston. When he went after an old man. Heston was gentleman enough to permit Moore (and film crew...) into his house, and - without preparation - attempted to explain his positions on guns and gun control. He misspoke, perhaps, in a moment of trying to express himself, but Moore's film tried to portray this fumble as racism. I didn't like seeing one of my childhood heroes ambushed, and I don't think that this moment is going to prove - in the final analysis - to be one of Moore's career highlights. I know a lot of viewers who feel exactly the same way: they loved the film until it looked like Moore was making his point at the expense of an old, unprepared man. It just makes Moore look mean-spirited. And Moore never noted in the film, for instance, that Heston fronted films that derided nuclear war and right-wing religious zealotry (Planet of the Apes), big business and environmentalism (Soylent Green), and racial division (The Omega Man). As someone who grew up with those films as practical Scripture, I feel this is a fatal omission, and particularly one-sided.
But I've gotten off track here. It isn't my intent to defend Heston or his right-wing beliefs (which I don't share), only to state my opinion that he was a talent who was more than the sum of his political convictions. He was an icon, and for kids in the 1970s, he was the best game in town. Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man -- these were the screen fantasies of my youth (pre-Star Wars), and there was Charlton Heston, front-and-center defending the human race and human values -- in every damn one of them. He gave me hours and years and decades of enjoyment, fronting those films and I cherish his performances and his memory. I don't have to agree with Hestons beliefs to admire him, and to admire what he accomplished in a long and versatile career.