• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, April 07, 2008

    Charlton Heston (1923-2008)

    I was sorry to hear of the death of the great Charlton Heston on Saturday. I can still remember, as a boy, rushing back home from playing football in the park in order to watch The Ten Commandments on TV one New Year's Day. As an actor he was champion of the historical epic in general and the Bible Film in particular. People often discuss whose face they picture when they think of Jesus, but when it comes to Moses there's no question: it's Heston.

    It was undoubtedly DeMille who made Heston a star, giving him his big break in The Greatest Show on Earth and making him a household name with The Ten Commandments. Today Heston's performance seems a little dated in places, but overall it's still as monumental as it was 50 years ago. As with the film in general, it always seems to play better than I remember it.

    Three years later Heston won an Oscar for his role in another Bible Film, of sorts, Ben Hur pictured in this blog's header image). The film won a record number of Oscars, but it was Heston's performance, along with the chariot race scene that really captured the attention. Heston's portrayal captured the inner battle between Ben Hur's heroism and his bitterness.Then in 1965 he turned in a brief role in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The standard complaint about this film was its parade of A-list stars making cameos, not least John Wayne's climatic moment as a centurion. In fairness Heston's performance was no better. It was the only feature film to star both actors.

    Heston made numerous other historical films, El Cid, Big Country, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Three Musketeers to name just a few. He often joked that his face belonged to another century, but in reality it was as much his charisma and nobility. Michel Mourlet first noted his "eagle's profile" with his "imperious arch of eyebrows", and in that way he embodied America1.

    He had plenty of choice roles in the modern era as well. In 1958 he was cast as a Mexican detective in A Touch of Evil and he became one of the few actors to get to choose their director. Chuck chose well, and Orson Welles got to make what is perhaps his second greatest film.

    In later life he also ended up fronting a series of documentaries - "Charlton Heston Presents - The Bible" and voicing an animated version of Ben Hur, as well as turning in a handful of smaller roles. Reading stories and obituaries from various news outlets reminded me of one that I had temporarily forgotten - his hilarious cameo in Wayne's World 2.Predictably there are also mentions of his work as head of the NRA. Whilst I disagree with his politics I'm deeply saddened by the vitriol of some of the comments on the BBC website. They seem to forget / are unaware that not only do the majority of Americans favour the right to own a gun, but they also live in a household that actually does.

    For Heston, however, this was simply part of his life long fight for civil rights as embodied in his presence at civil rights protests in the early sixties. It's rare for someone cross party agendas in such an extreme way. Rarer still for it to be done in a way that seems to exhibit such logic. As I said disagree, but, it has to be said most respectfully.

    It was Heston's role with the NRA that gained him his last memorable screen role - as the bad guy in Bowling for Coumbine (2002). Director Michael Moore put in a lot of hours in the editing room, and Heston came out of it looking pretty bad. Shortly afterwards, however, he announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's and his apparent discombobulation during Moore's interview suddenly made sense.Following his announcement he retired from public life and it seemed increasingly likely that the next news story about him would be the announcement of his death that came yesterday. Even before he reached 84 he had boasted that he had lived enough for two lives, and one wouldn't be surprised if his arrival at the pearly gates leads one or two of the inmates to exclaim "it's Moses!"


    There are a few other pieces on Heston at the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and The Independent.

    1 - Michel Mourlet, "In Defence of Violence" in "Stardom: Industry of Desire" Gledhill (ed). (1991)

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    • At 12:04 pm, April 07, 2008, Blogger  said…

      The POTA film was the finest.

    • At 8:09 pm, April 07, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Also worth a read is Gareth Higgins' obit at God's Politics.


    • At 11:39 am, April 10, 2008, Blogger Kevin C. Neece said…

      So sad to see him go. You know, it's interesting to note that his "Charlton Heston Presents The Bible" series shows him playing a number of great Biblical roles - including Jesus - in his dramatic readings of Scripture. It's pretty fascinating stuff, I think. A glimpse at what could have been. What an amazing force of film greatness he was. It's the passing of a one-man vanguard of the golden age of cinema.

    • At 1:36 am, June 12, 2008, Blogger Rabbi Michael Samuel said…

      Charlton Heston was a great actor. He beautifully illustrated how cinema can be a creative form of Midrash. Movies, like commentaries, in many ways disclose newer ways of interpreting a biblical text that make its meaning more relevant and exciting!

      Rabbi Michael Samuel

    • At 3:09 am, June 12, 2008, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for that. I'm still trying to get my head round the idea of midrash. At times I think it's something lacking in Christianity, but at others I think it's there but in a much more accidental way.


    • At 2:34 am, June 23, 2008, Blogger Benigna Torviso-Marko said…

      Mr. Heston was amazing in his role of Moses and in Ben Her. He was truly wonderful to see. Benigna Marko wrote this of Charleston when she heard the news of his passing on April 5. Benigna Marko enjoyed the acting of one of Holiwood's finest.
      Benigna Marko


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