Charlton Heston – The Sci-Fi Years
I am not usually the type to write celebrity obituaries, but I could not let the April 5th passing of Charlton Heston go without paying tribute to this fine actor. While best remembered for his extremely powerful portrayals of characters like Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, Heston also proved he could handle light comedy roles (Major Dundee) and suspense (Airport 1975). During a surprisingly short span of only five years, 1968-1973, Heston made an indelible mark in the science fiction genre as well by starring in no less than four genuine classics. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, I come not to bury Taylor but to praise him and what better way than through these films?
Planet of the Apes (1968) – French writer Pierre Boule’s story of an ape-run civilization where man is the subordinate species was adapted for the screen by Rod Serling and reworked by Michael Wilson. Here Heston is cast in the meaty role of George Taylor, a fatalistic astronaut escaping from a world he can’t relate to and getting more than he bargained for in the deal. While often sited for its groundbreaking special effects, the first film in the Apes series also raised the acting bar for all science fiction movies to come. For the character of Taylor, Heston was able to run the emotional gamut from arrogant nihilist to frightened fugitive and finally to uncertain explorer resigned to make the best of his fate. This film is loaded with memorable scenes and the final stinger (retained from Serling’s version of the script) is a classic!
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – After the smash success of Planet of the Apes, a sequel was inevitable. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox made the unwise decision to reduce the budget and paying the hefty salary Heston wanted was out of the question. As a compromise, he returned in wraparound scenes designed to connect the film to its predecessor while James Franciscus filled in the middle. As astronaut Brent, sent to rescue or at least find out what happened to Taylor and his crew, Franciscus lacks the presence Heston commanded in the first installment and Beneath drags in the middle. Thankfully, once the story finally does get beneath the planet, it moves to a satisfying climax.Taylor is not only reunited with Brent but also with his nemesis Dr. Zaius. While there was no way to top the final scene from the first film, Taylor’s annihilation of the world he hated is still a very powerful closer (even if they still milked three more sequels out of the franchise).
The Omega Man (1971) – The second feature film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s cold war era novel veers further from its source than the earlier Last Man on Earth (but it was still a lot closer than the recent I Am Legend that only got the title right!). Heston plays the very Taylor-like character of Robert Neville, a military scientist immune to the plague that has wiped out most of the Earth and turned the few survivors into zombie like mutants. Omega Man spends the first half of its running time detailing the fall of civilization (in flashbacks) and Neville’s constant battle with solitude and the mutants in the present. Once a group of only partially contaminated survivors turn up, the second half becomes a race for Neville to save mankind before the mutants can wipe it out completely. Heston shines in material heavily influenced by the current political times with references to the Vietnam War and biological warfare. The conclusion comes off a bit heavy handed with the Christ-like image of Neville “crucified” in a fountain outside his home – his blood the salvation of humanity!
Soylent Green (1973) – In the distant future of 2022(!), the brutal murder of a corporate official leads a resolute detective to a startling realization about the depths to which civilization has sunk to survive. Another film heavily weighted by the current state of political affairs, Soylent Green paints a bleak portrait of a future filled with overpopulation, poverty, and starvation as resources fail and society folds in upon itself. Heston plays Detective Robert Thorn, a decent cop who isn’t above liberating real food from a crime scene to supplement his existence. His determination to solve his most recent case puts him at odds with the ruling class and eventually leads him to pull back the thin curtain that hides a grim secret about the main source of food for the general population. The often spoofed ending with Thorn using his dying breath to blow the lid off the conspiracy is still powerful on first viewing. Soylent Green is people!
While Charlton Heston’s acting career would continue for another thirty years after Soylent Green and even occasionally return to science fiction films (including a notable cameo in the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes), he would never again come close to equaling the output of this period. Thank you, Mr. Heston, from Fanboys everywhere. May the Lawgiver have a special place for you in that big Ape City in the sky!