Like its subject’s work across a six-decade stage and screen career, Marc Eliot’s detailed and amiably flowing new 500+-page biography Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon gets the job done with professionalism and conviction. With input from the Heston family and access to rare and delicious archival material, a full picture of the Academy Award®-winning screen icon (1923-2008) emerges, and it’s intriguing to follow the future towering figure of the future Moses, Ben-Hur, Cardinal Richelieu, Sir Thomas More, civil rights activist, American Film Institute champion and NRA advocate through the early years of hardscrabble struggle, army service and career uncertainty as a jobbing actor in late 1940s New York before regional theater and Manhattan stage work and a few key appearances in early television brought him to the attention of Hollywood. Heston, who starred in the sold-out Twilight Time titles Major Dundee (1965) and Khartoum (1966), always remained keen on William Shakespeare, and valued his efforts in a Katharine Cornell-headlined 1947 Broadway staging of Antony and Cleopatra and a low-budget 1950 film of Julius Caesar, was in the thick of preparing new movie versions of both Bard works in 1969. Filming had finished on Julius Caesar (also starring Jason Robards, John Gielgud, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Diana Rigg, Jill Bennett, Christopher Lee and Khartoum’s Richard Johnson) and during the lag period when Antony and Cleopatra’s up-front money was being raised, Heston took a Pacific detour, from Will of Avon to James A. Michener, playing Whip Hoxworth, the entrepreneurial seafarer-turned-plantation magnate, in his third TT hi-def Blu-ray movie The Hawaiians (1970), which opened theatrically 47 years ago this week and covered more of the sprawling multi-generational book’s narrative about the future 50th state’s cross-cultural history begun in the earlier Walter Mirisch-George Roy Hill box-office success Hawaii (1966, also on the TT label).
Although top-billed for movie-marquee allure, Heston’s role in the Tom Gries-directed The Hawaiians is more a supporting one, perhaps secondary to the more moving stories of the indentured Chinese servants (Tina Chen, Mako) imported for island labor and the roiling political conflicts as the islands became more commercialized and increasingly less paradisiacal. He nonetheless proved a reliable audience anchor to an epic story that would include stormy tempests, a leprosy outbreak, and a devastating plague that would trigger the fiery destruction of the Chinese immigrant ghetto. With Shakespeare movie turmoil and his wife’s mysterious illness on his mind, Heston would later confess that he wasn’t as engaged on the project as he would have liked. Eliot reports: “Heston’s best memories of the shoot were the daily morning swims he took in the warm blue Pacific’s warm waters, caring for Lydia and helping out with the kids, and, during the long downtime between setups, writing his long-hand screenplay adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra.” (That film would finally arrive in 1972, co-starring Hildegarde Neil as the wily Egyptian queen opposite director/adaptor Heston’s well-judged Antony, Eric Porter, John Castle, Fernando Rey and Freddie Jones.) But Heston and the gorgeously scenic, Maui and Kauai-lensed The Hawaiians are reliably eye-catching and eventful. Also starring Geraldine Chaplin, John Phillip Law and Alec McCowen, The Hawaiians on TT hi-def Blu-ray is the cinematic equivalent of a rip-roaring summer read, just like the carefully researched and easily digested pages of Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon.