Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston: 1923-2008

The obituary in the L.A. Times states that Charlton Heston’s “big break” was a 1949 role in a CBS production of Julius Caesar. That hardly comes as a surprise. Heston’s booming, emphatic acting style was perfect for stage work, even if it was stage work on TV. Throughout his entire career, in roles noble, outrageous and somewhere in between, Heston always played to the back row. He was meant for the Theatre of Dionysus but was born too late. Yesterday, Heston died at 84.

Over his career, he parted the Red Sea, he acted opposite some damn, dirty apes and he figured out what Soylent Green was made out of. But Heston’s greatest role, for which he won an Oscar (his only such nomination), came in the titular part of 1959’s Ben-Hur. As the obits note, Heston wasn’t the first choice for the role (Burt Lancaster, who certainly would have been up for the task, turned it down, as did Paul Newman and Rock Hudson). But it was Heston’s dedication to his craft that made Judah Ben-Hur so memorable and that made Ben-Hur the grand film it remains today.

Where the movie itself ranks is up for debate. For what it’s worth, Ben-Hur placed 72nd in the American Film Institute’s inaugural “100 Years…100 Movies” rankings in 1998 and fell to 100th for the 10th Anniversary re-ranking. Regardless of the results of such quasi-scientific analysis, it’s a tremendous film certainly, though at 212 minutes it has plenty of time for imperfection.

What is flawless, however, is the legendary chariot race sequence, which I believe still stands as the most remarkable achievement in cinema history. The statistics alone are impressive: an 18-acre set, thousands of extras, plus horses and stunt men and urban legends, oh my! One shudders to imagine how the same sequence would be achieved today in the digital effects era. The set would be CGI, as would be the crowd, the horses, the chariots and sometimes even the actors. Not to mention that you can bet your bottom dollar that screenwriters would find a way to work in some play-by-play commentary. Yet I challenge you to watch Ben-Hur and tell me how digital effects could enhance the existing product.

Tremendously edited, using a wide array of camera angles, the chariot race captures the enormity of its arena without losing the intimacy of Judah’s duel with Messala (Stephen Boyd). And here is where Heston’s work ethic comes in, because while stuntman Joe Canutt stood in for the actor for several portions of the race (including the famous flip over the front of the chariot), that’s Heston doing most of the riding. Heston’s athleticism in the chariot enabled Andrew Marton (credited with directing the sequence, though the film’s director was William Wyler) to get close enough to Judah to capture Heston’s expressions while still picking up the genuine racing action unfolding around him in the picture’s super-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

At 6-foot-2, Heston’s physical stature made Judah Ben-Hur the heroic presence the epic demanded. Though Heston wasn’t the most unaffected of actors, his power of spirit was alluring. The Cooler pays tribute to the cinema legend with shots from the chariot race.


Mark said...

Excellent post. Seeing these photos makes me want to watch the movie again; I haven't seen it in years.

Heston's politics sort of ruined him for me, but I did appreciate his work in a lot of his pictures. Even "Planet of the Apes" was better because of his intensity, I think.

Thanks for the nice tribute.

Richard Bellamy said...

WHAT A THRILLING TRIBUTE TO CHARLTON HESTON! Your series of the shots from the chariot race gave me goose bumps! Since C.G.I. comes out too fast, too flat, there is no way that this sequence or one like it could ever be done in a more gripping fashion. In my book it will always rank as the most gripping action sequence in film history - and Heston was the best choice to place in that chariot and that thunderous race; most other actors of time would have been lost in the vastness of the sequence.

When I opened up the Net this morning and saw that Heston had died, I said, audibly, "Oh, no!" Along with John Wayne's films, Heston's films were among my favorites that took me through my grade school and high school years - and later, though I disagreed with Heston's politics, as I did with Wayne's, I was still a faithful follower of his films.

Even after my college years, my younger brother and I would seek out old theaters on Market Street in San Francisco that was playing "Ben-Hur." Seeing Heston's films made for many memorable fond memories. I remember seeing "Planet of the Apes" in the theater and being blown away by the ending. I remember going to see "55 Days at Peking" - not knowing anything about it - and being stunned by the art direction and the action sequences. And in all these films - Heston had the stature to fill such huge sets and fit into panoramas like the desert in "Khartoum" - another Heston film I watch repeatedly - the one which, I think, features his best performance (so said the critics at the time as well).

Another favorite Heston is Sam Peckinpah's bloody Western "Major Dundee," which is injected with the kind of violence and cynicism that would later make "The Wild Bunch" a Peckinpah classic - though if I had to choose, I'd take "Major Dundee" any day with its unforgettable climactic battle with French cavalry that turns the Rio Grande red and Heston's convincing portrayal of a ruthless, Godless cavalry officer bent on revenge.

Anyway, thanks again for the great post; it brought me joy. The nature of the art form is that Heston lives on in his films. Here's hoping for a collector's edition of "55 Days at Peking," one of Heston's epics that has been neglected by DVD.

Mark said...

All the love for Heston's movies notwithstanding, I thought this was a pretty funny line -- the complete post -- at HorsesAss, a liberal political blog based in Seattle.

"Um, I guess it’s finally time to take Chuck’s gun away from him…"

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: I think we were all thinking it. How fitting that it took "HorsesAss" to say it. Classic.

Jason Bellamy said...

And on the lighter side there's this ...

Via Nathaniel R over at The Film Experience, here's Stephen Colbert's take on Heston's booming acting style:

"They did not even need a camera to make those movies. They would just hold up a film cannister and his performance would stick to it."

Perfect. Wish I'd thought of that.