Charlton Heston:  The Sci-Fi Years

Charlton Heston was a leading man in his first movie, the noir Dark City (1950), and in 1952 famed director Cecil B. DeMille chose him to headline The Greatest Show on Earth, the eventual Best Picture Academy Award winner.  That led to another DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments (1956) with Heston as Moses.  Heston’s physical stature was perfect for such films, as Laurence Olivier observed.  In 1959 he won the Best Actor Academy Award for the title role in that most honored Biblical extravaganza, Ben-Hur.  That was followed in 1961 by yet another medieval epic, El Cid, with Heston as the Spanish knight negotiating his way between Christian Castile and the Muslims controlling southern Spain.  On a more modest scale came The War Lord (1964).  The knight Chrysagon (Heston) is entailed with protecting a Norman community threatened by Frisian marauders. 

An assortment of roles followed in various genres, some good, like the western Will Penny (1968), some merely fair like the WW II suspense film, Counterpoint, also 1968. 

The third time was the charm:  Planet of the Apes.  Writer and teacher Robert Castle wondered if Apes won the Honorary Academy Award for Makeup because the voters thought the primates in the same year’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey were actual apes!  So, 1968 was a key year in science fiction, which had been playing second fiddle to Hammer Studios’ horror films in the realm of the fantastic.  Apes and 2001 resuscitated the genre, and both were commercial successes. 

In his autobiography In the Arena, Heston said after finishing the Planet of the Apes shoot on schedule he had a drink with director Franklin Schaffner and told him, “I smelled a hit in this from the beginning,…” He was correct.  “It not only grossed enormous numbers, it created a new film genre:  the space opera.”

In 1971 the second outing in what would be a sci-fi triptych for Heston was The Omega Man, a new version of Richard Matheson’s tale of a future earth after a biological holocaust decimated the population and turned some into mutants—or vampires.  It followed the Italian rendering, The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price and preceded the high tech I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. The Omega Man has several gripping scenes, e.g., Heston driving through a desolate Los Angeles; pulling a sheet from what he imagined to be couple of mutants but instead discovers the desiccated corpses of two lovers; battling his way back into his garage at nightfall against the crazed, robed and anti-technology survivors of the plague who now call themselves the “Family.”  Ron Grainer’s score enhanced the action.

In In the Arena, Heston said the shoot went smoothly and swiftly and was his first hit in four years.  He liked the final product. “It’s become something of a cult film since, still pumping in checks every so often.  I think we’d had a chance to make a really fine film of Omega, but I was quite willing to settle for a merely successful one at the time.

Soylent Green (1973) was, like The Omega Man, a bit “under-funded” but nevertheless possessed of some arresting scenes.  Heston played Detective Thorn, who in 2022 investigates a murder that leads to a shocking revelation.  Just what is the stuff people are eating?  Issues tackled include overpopulation, dying oceans, pollution, and the greenhouse effect.  Sound familiar? 


Heston, Charlton.  The Actor’s Life:  Journals 1956-1976.  1978.  

______.  In the Arena:  An Autobiography.  1995.

By Kim

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