Thursday, April 10, 2008

Charlton Heston: a conservative mugged by reality

If his obituaries are any indication, Charlton Heston will be remembered for two things: starring in lavish biblical epics like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” and his Second Amendment activism.

Heston died Saturday at age 84, less than six years after he announced that he had been diagnosed with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Just about every report of Heston’s death focuses on the late actor’s conservative politics — a rarity in Hollywood — and, in particular, his longtime support of an individual’s right to own firearms, which culminated in his becoming president of the National Rifle Association in 1998.

Less attention is given to Heston’s starring roles in a trio of apocalyptic science-fiction films.
Irving Kristol, the founder of American neoconservatism, once described a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” That was his bumper-sticker explanation for why he and some of his fellow leftists moved right during the 1960s.

Heston’s movie characters during the same period can be described as conservatives who have been mugged by the future.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Heston starred in “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “The Omega Man” (1971) and “Soylent Green” (1973). Each, in its own way, reflects the anxieties of American society during the Vietnam era, and depicts a world in which humanity is no longer at the top of the food chain.

Heston’s characters are cynical and world-weary. Sometimes they’re downright misanthropic, as in “Planet of the Apes,” when Heston’s wayward astronaut, Taylor, says he left Earth because somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.

How are Heston’s characters in these films conservatives? Consider what each represents. Although he doesn’t know it at first, Taylor represents the past. He’s a human trapped in a future where humanity has literally bombed itself back to the Stone Age, only to be replaced as Earth’s dominant species by apes. Evolution takes no prisoners, even if, fortunately for Taylor, the apes do.

Still, there is one way in which the apes reaffirm Taylor’s cynical brand of conservatism: They’re no better than men. They have the same class divisions and prejudices. If Taylor is a conservative, he is a conservative in the mode of the late political theorist Russell Kirk, for whom progress was just an illusion. The apes prove him right.

“The Omega Man” was Hollywood’s second attempt to film Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” the most recent version of which, starring Will Smith, came out last year.

In “The Omega Man,” Heston’s Robert Neville is the last man on Earth, and the embodiment of an industrial society that destroyed itself through biological warfare. Unlike the vampiric, mutated survivors of the plague, Neville still uses technology. He drives a car and uses electricity. The mutants, however, blame technology for humanity’s downfall and have embraced primitivism. Neville isn’t just the last man, he’s the last remnant of civilization in a world that blames civilization for everything that has gone wrong. The parallel between Neville vs. the mutants on the one hand and the political establishment vs. the 1960s counterculture on the other is inescapable.

Set in the year 2022, when overpopulation has led to food shortages and the threat of mass starvation, “Soylent Green” stars Heston as New York City police Detective Robert Thorn, whose murder investigation uncovers a far more sinister conspiracy. I hate to give away the ending, but this movie did come out 35 years ago. Thorn learns that soylent green, the processed food ration that feeds the masses, is made of people.

In “Soylent Green,” Heston is part of the establishment but finds himself pitted against it. You can’t trust “the man” even when you are “the man.”

During the midpoint of his acting career, Heston was a lonely Hollywood conservative playing establishment/conservative characters in films in which the characters’ conservatism becomes their undoing.

I wonder if he was aware of the irony.

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