Friday, August 25, 2017

Four Hestons of the Apocalypse

...from Apes to Apotheosis...

(originally published April 2015)

If Buster Crabbe is the Rudy Vallee of scifi thespians, then Charlton Heston is the Elvis. And like Crabbe, there is a certain thematic unity to Heston's work that bears examination.

In the 1950's, when Heston was a young actor, the USA experienced a perceptible increase in overt religiosity. No doubt this was some kind of collective reaction to the successive deprivation and horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, as well as a cultivated propaganda campaign of the early Cold War.

Indeed, in 1954, the US Congress voted into effect the national motto: 'In God We Trust,' ostensibly as a tribute to the bronze-age Hebrew war-god Yahweh, AKA Allah, AKA God. In 1957, US mints began printing the motto on paper money, uniting the two things Americans worship the most.

Sec. of State, John Foster Dulles, author of some of the USA's most aggressive imperialist actions, such as the Iranian Coup, made this statement in 1955:
  • “Our people have always been endowed with a sense of mission in the world. They have believed that it was their duty to help men everywhere to get the opportunity to be and do what God designed.”

During this period of theocratic exuberance, there was a string of big budget religious movies, such as Sampson and Delilah (1949), Quo Vadis (1951), and The Robe (1953). From the 21st century point of view, it's strange to contemplate the Religious Film as being a big box office genre, since such films are now mostly Direct to Home Video or a commercial flop, but it filled a distinct need in 1950's America. Religious films allowed Hollywood to traffic in violence, lust, and all the other salacious ingredients Americans prefer, but with a veneer of sanctimony, so that movie-goers could still feel sufficiently pious.

Victure Mature, as Biblical Beefcake in Samson and Delilah
The biggest of these films was The Ten Commandments (1956), which featured the young thespian Charlton Heston.  He had previously appeared in notable films such as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Naked Jungle (1954), but directors and the American filmgoer obviously sensed a certain ecclesiastical quality in him, because it was the beginning of a string of religious-themed epics featuring Heston:

  • Ben Hur (1959)
  • El Cid (1961)
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
The Heston Method

Although his acting style is not generally well-regarded by today's critics, Heston took his craft seriously and had high aspirations. While getting steady work in Hollywood A-pictures was no doubt appealing, he must have had misgivings about being Testamentary Typecast.

It was no doubt a fortuitous moment when Arthur P. Jacobs pitched Heston the idea for Planet of the Apes in 1965. Heston signed on the same day, and later participated in a short 'test reel' for 20th Century Fox, demonstrating the concept. 

Reading this article from the vantage point of the 21st century, it is worth a short side-trip into the history of Scifi film. Scifi cinema has trafficked in various apocalyptic scenarios since at least Things to Come (1936), but the sub-genre really came into its own in the 1950's. The need for low-budget product to fill the screens of America's drive-in theaters, combined with the potential thrills of Scifi and Atomic Age Anxiety, inspired a number of shoestring auteurs to produce a profusion of end-of-the-world epics. These films often opened with stock newsreel footage of exploding mushroom clouds and usually featured the desolation of Bronson Canyon or the Bronson Cave standing-in for a post-apocalyptic hell-scape. Robot Monster (1953)  and The Day the World Ended (1955) typify this group.

Humans fighting back against ape dominance in a post-apocalyptic Earth: the micro-budget Robot Monster (1953) strangely foreshadows Planet of the Apes.
Planet of the Apes (POTA) would be cut from different cloth. Costing almost $6 million to produce (in less inflated, 1968 dollars), it had an adequate budget, and an excellent cast and crew. The very fact that the story transpires on a ruined, post-apocalyptic earth is concealed until the last scene, although there are hints throughout the film. 

The Heston Method

POTA was released in early 1968, which turned out to be perfect timing for an apocalyptic Scifi film. Just a few weeks after the film's release, Walter Cronkite famously declared the Viet Nam war unwinnable, and was shortly thereafter followed the horrendous My Lai massacre. In April, and June, two eloquent and earnest political figures, MLK and RFK, beloved by millions, were respectively gunned down, shattering dreams for racial equality and peace.  In August, national TV broadcast live images of Chicago police brutalizing American youth at the National Democratic Convention. The self-righteous hypocrisy of American exceptionalism, the creed of the 1950's, was being challenged by disturbing realities.
By 1968, Americans had witnessed hundreds of civil rights marchers getting hosed. Now it was happening to a white guy.
A hard-hitting satire of race, religion, and politics, Planet of the Apes must have seemed like a bitter yet indispensable tonic. Its central conceit, to take a representative of the white male establishment, the most entitled species ever known on Planet Earth, and reverse his station, to humiliate him, cage him, cake him in filth, call him an animal and make him stand before a court of simian inquisitors, is Swiftian satire that remains potent after nearly 50 years.

The Heston Method

At the time of the film's production, Heston was mostly liberal in his political views, and decidedly anti-racist. There was no contradiction between the politics of the film and those of the thespian. 

Heston himself plays a character radically different from Moses or Michaelangelo, a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo American astronaut. This hero marks a significant step in the evolution of cinematic scifi, since most protagonists had heretofore been square-jawed hero types, ala Rex Reason, Gene Barry, or Leslie Neilsen.  

Heston would later describe Astronaut George Taylor in these terms: '...physically fleeing earth because of his contempt for man as a generally unsatisfactory animal. He finds himself thrust into the ironic situation of being the only reasoning human being in the anthropoid society, where he is forced to defend the homo sapiens whom he despises.This is a very interesting acting situation. I was of course fascinated by it...'

Yet in bringing to life such a character, there is more than cynicism and machismo, as evidenced by this excerpt from Astronaut Taylor's opening soliloquy:
  • 'I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing - if anybody's listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It's purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego. I feel lonely. That's about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?'
Might these sentiments have also fit one of the actor's ecclesiastical performances as well?

Being as it is a satire of religious hypocrisy, it makes sense that POTA is full of quasi-scriptural language. Dig this quote from the simian holy book:
  • 'Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.'
But the concept of Apocalypse itself comes to us from religion. Nuclear War and the other technological horrors of the 20th century had merely brought Apocalypse back into style after a thousand year hiatus.

The POTA script, and the final, sucker-punch scene, strongly imply that the planet was the victim of war. War of course, is one of the famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the Biblical Book of Revelation. The Four Horsemen are typically identified by Christian Mythologists as follows: Conquest, Pestilence, War, and Famine.

Planet of the Apes was a mega-blockbuster and a genuine cultural phenomenon, grossing over $20 million in 1968 dollars, recapping the production cost more than threefold. A sequel was inevitable.

Mr Heston was not enthusiastic, but agreed to it, citing a feeling of obligation to producer Arthur P Jacobs. The Flapdoodle Files suspects that the actor also wanted to put a few more miles between himself and the cinematic Holy Land.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was released in 1970, and was another hit for both 20th Century Fox and Heston.  It is, admittedly, somewhat loopy, but good apocalyptic fun is still to be found. There is a particularly enjoyable speech by the Elvis of Sleaze, the great James Gregory, as General Ursus, as he eggs the ape parliament onward toward an invasion of the Forbidden Zone. Watching the film today, the Ursus speech is strikingly familiar to watching the primates on our current 24-hr cable news channels, egging us onto our next campaign of military aggression.  This film corresponds to the Horseman Conquest.

The Heston Method
BTPOTA is also graced by the presence of an underground cult of H-Bomb worshiping telepathic mutants. Since the film ends with the detonation of a world-destroying mega-bomb, one could say this film shows the power of prayer.

By this time, Heston was though with the Planet of the Apes but not finished the Apocalypse. While flying on a passenger jet, he chanced to read Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend and became interested in its adaptation to cinema, seemingly unaware that it had been previously by an Italian producer under the name The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring the brilliant but effete Vincent Price in the titular role. 

The Heston version was titled The Omega Man (1971) and takes many liberties with the source material. In the film, Heston plays a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo Army doctor, whose blood is uniquely and mysteriously immune to a strange post-apocalyptic plague of zombism.  This film corresponds to the Horseman Pestilence

Although this was Heston's third go at apocalyptic scifi, his leading lady, Rosalind Cash, balked at doing a nude love scene with him, citing her own reluctance to "screw Moses." Despite his efforts so far, the Biblical aura was still clinging to the craggy thespian.

The Omega Man is a harbinger of changes in Heston's political views. Instead of being a bearded, dirty, hippiesque type of hero, as he was in Planet of the Apes, in this film he is clean-shaven, wears a smoking jacket and ascot, lives in a plush apartment, drives a Detroit land-yacht, eats caviar and drinks expensive whiskey. Not quite a square, he nonetheless embodies The Man. He is menaced and persecuted by a bizarre counterculture zombie cult known as The Family, likely inspired by The Manson Family. 

To put it bluntly, The Omega Man is not a good film, suffering from a daffy script, uninspired photography, and overall inept direction. It is of value mainly to film historians, to scholars of the Fantastique, and to hecklers.  Despite its failings, however, due credit should be given to its clumsy director, Boris Sagal, for having the guts to create the film's final image, a crucifixion parody/homage, underscoring the fact that Our Hero saves the world by shedding his blood. A little bit of sacrilege worthy of our admiration, yet at the same time, revealing a messianic ego. 

The Heston Method
Heston's final apocalyptic scfi film was Soylent Green (1973), which contains the earliest cinematic usage the term 'Greenhouse Effect' known to the Flapdoodle Files. Soylent Green (SG) features Heston as the hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo detective Frank Thorne, in the near future year of 2022. SG transpires in an NYC trapped in perpetual summer (due to the Greenhouse Effect), overpopulation, food scacrity, resource depletion, 50% unemployment, and a disintegrating infrastructure. A whodunnit set amidst extreme urban decay and masses of ragged homeless people crowding every available inch, there is a disquieting plausibility to SG which only increases as the years pass and our own prognosis grows ever worse. While NYC doesn't look quite like Soylent Green yet, a few cities, like Rio and Mumbai, look worse.

Viewers accustomed to the spectacular battles and dazzling special effects of the post Star Wars era will perhaps be perplexed by SG, which uses the format of a police procedural to tell its own particular apocalyptic story, which corresponds to the Horseman Famine. The gritty dystopian whodunit is interspersed with enjoyable expository scenes featuring Heston alongside the great Edward G. Robinson, in what would be his last role.

Although unlike anything made in recent years, Soylent Green is an excellent film and its social commentary is even truer now than in 1973. Approaching from another angle, we note that Robinson's character is named Sol, evoking both a disciple of the legendary demi-god Jesus and the Roman emperor who made the Jesus-cult a State Religion. The name is likely not coincidental, since the movie features a famous sequence featuring Sol's voluntary surrender of his own life and technological transubstantiation into foodstuff, echoing the ritual of Christian Cannibalism.

The Heston Method
It is a testimonial to the impact of Soylent Green that almost no reader was shocked by that last spoiler, just as no readers were shocked when we mentioned that Earth is really the Planet of the Apes. The film was a box-office success, and mostly approved by the critics.

This would be Heston's final apocalypse, with the thespian moving on to supporting roles in a number of genres, then to TV soap-opera, and then to lesser roles. He had broken through his ecclesiastical typecasting and had somehow avoided being completely pidgeonholed in scifi.

The Four Hestonian Apocalypses, each from a different director, each a divergent vision of the apocalypse, have an accidental quality of unity. Each features the former Moses as a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo protagonist, trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Heston serves as a kind of Gulliver, traveling between these strange worlds.

At the same time, Heston's hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo scifi hero has become a genuine archetype, forming the basis for multiple performances by Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Kirk Russell, Bruce Willis, and others. 

In the meantime, America and it's middle-class experienced a continuation of the national traumas and culture shocks which had begun with the 1968 Planet of the Apes release. The Stones at Altamont, the Mansion Murders, the Kent State Tragedy, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the drug-related deaths of numerous promising young rock and roll artists disheartened the youth movement. Concurrently, the bills for the Viet Nam war started to come due, corporations began to move their factories overseas, and Oil Shock combined so that, after 25 years of gains, the American middle-class began its long (and as yet unabated) slide backwards.

Heston himself seemed to have misunderstood what was happening to America, perceiving it as being somehow a set of misfortunes exclusive to the white heterosexual male, as opposed to the generalized and widespread deprivation that actually existed. His final role, as a right-wing fundraiser and president of the NRA, afforded him a high profile platform to utter shocking, offensive, and surreal soliloquies such as these:

  • "I find my blood pressure rising when [the President]'s cultural shock troops participate in homosexual rights fund raisers but boycott gun rights fund raisers - and then claim it's time to place homosexual men in tents with Boy Scouts and suggest that sperm-donor babies born into lesbian relationships are somehow better served."
  • "The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old, dead, white guys who invented this country. It's true - they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in [Abraham Lincoln]'s name, opposing slavery in the 1860s. So, why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is Hispanic pride or black pride a good thing, while white pride conjures up shaved heads and white hoods?"
For a rich white heterosexual man who had lived the greater part of his life with the privileges of a fame and wealth to argue that white heterosexual men were an oppressed group in the America of the 1990's is certainly an endeavor of the imagination. Heston's evolution from celluloid thespian to a Right Wing Talking Head, to his final cameo performance as an elderly and infirm man in Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine is perhaps more similar to the Reality TV Star than it is to the Performance Artist, however. 

The Heston Method

In fairness, Charlton Heston's emergence as a right-wing bloviator coincides with the Angry White Man movement of the 1980's and 1990's, in which millions of self-pitying Caucasians blamed the falling fortunes of the middle-class on Affirmative Action, Ebonics, liberals...anything but the structural economic forces actually at work.

Apotheosis is the term to describe the process by which ancient heroes or kings became transformed, in the imagination at least, from mere mortals to gods.  Charlton Heston began his career as an ordinary actor, appearing in westerns, crime stories, and other genres but at a critical moment in cinema history became so closely identified with religious heroes that in the mind of the public, the borders began to blur.  

In the seemingly-secular realm of scifi, each his characters each confronted the apocalypse, a concept with origins in ancient religions, and there is a strange messianic quality in these performances. The final chapter of his life, as a professional demagogue, thrust his own personality, or at least the simulacrum of it, into the public eye, upon the stage of the 24-hour TV news cycle. 

Even now, 7 years after his death, the NRA website has immortalized Heston's speeches, in all their racist/homophobic dog-whistling glory, echoing across the globe via the information superhighway.  

Alternatively, while his Biblical and religious-themed films are seldom seen today, the original Planet of the Apes is still in regular rotation on classic movie channels and scifi film festivals, and Astronaut Taylor preserves the memory of Heston for millions of viewers. 

An Old Testament prophet, the Last Man on Earth, an Angry White Man...a living technicolor memory, transmitted digitally, toward an undefined apotheosis... 

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