As a public figure in the political realm, Heston was perplexing. Having once marched on Washington with Dr. King, he ended his career as the president of the National Rifle Association. He may not have seen a contradiction between the two positions, but now we can let that pass. What is true today has been no less true for the past few years: the essence of Charlton Heston is what he left on movie screens. In any event, now we ought to be able to get that gun away from him.
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Most people will remember Heston for three films, in an order depending on taste. In chronological order, they are The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968). In this group you get the extremes of his screen persona: the stolid-seeming stalwartness of his epic roles and the sarcastic cynicism veering into self-righteous hysteria in Apes, which can also be seen in Soylent Green.
I'll recommend some perhaps less familiar performances. My favorite Heston film is Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961), which is probably the best film of the big-screen epic period that ran from the introduction of Cinemascope in 1953 to the revolution in moviemaking at the end of the 1960s. The title role is the part best suited to Heston's star qualities. The screenplay's emphasis on honor gives the film an epic force that survives for moder viewers. The fact that Heston and Sophia Loren hated one another makes you appreciate what fine romantic actors they both were in this picture. The director is still one of movie history's best-kept secrets among the laymen: a master of film-noir and gritty westerns, he presents the epic with almost no fakery, on an enormous scale matched by the intensity of the actors.
The other sleeper I'll suggest is Tom Gries's Will Penny (1968), in which Heston is probably his least Heston-like. This is a modest-scale Western in which Heston plays a very modest hero: an illiterate middle-aged cowboy just struggling to get by who ends up having to fight a gang of religious nuts led by Donald Pleasance. It's a realistic contrast to the excesses of many spaghetti westerns of the same period, and for all the virtues of some spaghettis, you want to have the other kind around as well.
Anyone with cable is likely to get a heavy dose of Heston over the next week, but keep an eye out for these two in particular if you want a fresh appreciation of the man in his true vocation.