Au revoir, Monsieur Heston

10 04 2008

Charlton Heston died more than a week ago. How are we doing now that he’s dead?

Heston was as close as Americans ever got to a yankee-style movie hero. By “hero” plan “b” means the image and idea of what large numbers of people had to do to survive. Heston was “Moses” enraged, lonely, bearer of bad news. He was Judah Ben-Hur, who threw every success away on a hunch. He was the the last human in a world run by monkeys aping humans. He was the sweaty, glistening sheriff in a corrupt border town where the stray shoe on the street would have a foot still in it.

Charlton Heston was an “American Hero” and by “American” plan “b” means a hero in the realm of confounded borders, the ones that can’t contain and the ones its people bring with them from wherever they came from. Charlton Heston was the one who crossed the line from safe to dangerous.

If this sounds complicated it really wasn’t. In the worlds Heston had to cross he was strong, alone, miserable and most of all without hope of assistance. Alone, Heston’s characters could not have been more alone. That was very simple. When he crossed the line he entered “every man for himself” welcome to America.

Charlton Heston’s films showed Americans what they were up against: they were the individual in the crowd and the crowd could not help them. Charlton Heston’s movies were the useful tales of men who lived in a highly developed human wilderness where no system, no government would help them.

Foreign audiences have often commented on the American film tradition of the Strong Silent Type. In those movies a group was probably a lynch mob. American westerns of the 1950s, among them masterpieces of American film, are a record of this political suspicion of the “crowd.”

In Heston’s wake live the flickering tough guys who knew what they had to do, gritted their teeth, and did it. John Wayne’s films have left a much more complex story, with a fair number of unquestioning patriots but also with inconvenient, critical, dark subversives.

Charlton Heston’s death officially leaves American with no living model of what an American is to do. plan “b” has tried but can think of no replacement for him. In a culture of obedience relieved only by attacks of (temporary) insanity, Johnny Depp’s deepening screen study of the Physical Outlaw doesn’t have mass appeal. Nor does George Clooney’s investigation of the intellectual outlaw. Both of these actors create characters that exist in larger contexts that are themselves the real subject of the film.

“Huh? This is America, give us something we can use!”

This week plan “b” will mourn the unknown complexity of a life that caused Heston to recant his earlier work for gun control to die reviled by many for his final support of guns. This week plan “b” is more inclined to remember Charlton as a man who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement of the 1960s when it might’ve cost him his bright, shiney new movie stardom.

She is imagining the Hollywood actor who loaned his celebrity to causes like civil rights and gun control after the murders of MLK and Robert Kennedy at his own peril (See

plan “b” is sad that Charlton Heston isn’t out there somewhere puttering around his house. She remembers him as the cordial but ultimately bewildered host of hostile documentary interviewer, Michael Moore (NB. whom plan “b” also admires).

An interview that brought the two guys from Michigan together in the hospitality of Heston’s home ended with aggressive NRA questions. As Moore and his crew withdrew they filmed Heston who watched their departure.

Impossible to know what was in Heston’s mind at that moment. plan “b” took the look on his face this way: poignant, human, a man who had just met another man he’d liked. They had things in common, they understood some of the same things and yet it ended in anger. The film crew left and Heston was alone.