With his chiseled features, magnificent physique and deep, resonant voice, Charlton Heston was born to be a Hollywood hero. In a career that spanned more than sixty years, he was never quite viewed as a great artist, but was a dependable box office success who never lacked for work.
Heston did it all -- epics, westerns, biopics, film noir, science fiction, disaster flicks and even prime-time TV soaps late in his career. Here are seven classic films that show Heston’s breadth and versatility, and showcase a great American actor.
The ultimate sword-and-sandal epic has Heston playing a Jewish prince in the time of Christ. The sweeping saga sees him oppressed as a galley slave by the Romans, only to rise by dint of character, strength and perseverance to earn his freedom and beat them at their own game in a thrilling chariot race at the Colosseum. He took home the Best Actor Oscar for his fine performance in a demanding role.
20th Century Fox
Definitely not Oscar material, but one of the best-loved and most-imitated sci-fi films of all time. Heston plays an astronaut hurtled to a time and place where talking apes are the dominant intelligent species, and human beings are speechless animals fit only to be used as unskilled slaves. Dated now, but innovative for its time, it’s great fun. Still terrific for the shocker ending, and of course, to hear Heston say, “Take your filthy paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
After Ben Hur
, this one is my personal favorite. A man-made plague descends on humankind, killing most and turning some into mutated, mad creatures who roam the deserted cities after dark. Heston stars as a military scientist who injects himself with an experimental serum and remains immune. He tries to stay sane in the creepy confines of deserted Los Angeles, developing a serum from his own blood that could save the remnants of humanity. The story has been made and remade, even parodied in a Simpsons episode. One of the best last-man-alive stories ever.
When Moses comes down from the mountain, you better not be worshipping a golden idol - not with Heston at his roaring, biblical, bearded best in a Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster. One of the biggest money-making films ever made about religion, it’s grand old Hollywood film-making with scope and splendor. Moses leads his people out of slavery and parts the Red Sea. A spectacular remake of DeMille‘s silent version, it retains the over-the-top flavor of acting for silent films.
This bizarre, dark film has Heston playing an upright Mexican narcotics officer (in dark makeup no less), newly married to Janet Leigh, and battling a corpulent, corrupt Texas police captain, Orson Welles, who also directed. Considered the last of the true film noir genre made in America, it was a box office failure, but celebrated in Europe for its gritty, even sleazy nature. An oddity, but strangely compelling and quite unpleasant. You'll either love it or hate it.
This was Heston’s own favorite performance, the story of an aching, aging cowboy trying to get by in the hard life of the Old West. With Donald Pleasance in a memorable role as a nasty villain who leaves Heston for dead, our hero is nursed back to health by a ranch widow and her young son, and must protect them from the bad guys. A little slow, but sensitive and full of epic western scenery.
20th Century Fox
Not my favorite, this classic shows the battle of wills and creative tension between Michelangelo (Heston) and Pope Julius II, the warrior pope who also wanted to create the great artistic jewel of the Sistine Chapel. The subject of later controversy because it suppressed even the subtext that Michelangelo was gay, I think the movie plods a little bit. Nevertheless, a visually sumptuous film.