Heston's Epic Creativity
“It’s a lot harder to be creative in an epic than in a low-budget picture. It’s terribly easy to get swamped in a turgid sea of angry slaves brandishing spears. But it’s worth it because of the characters you get to play.” So said Charlton Heston (1923-2008) in 1960 to the Sunday Express, and the enduring star of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), who would have turned 93 today, played in a succession of epic movies throughout his long career, some successful, many others not. In The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, film historian David Shipman wrote:“On occasion he has acted beautifully and in recent years he has shown himself to be one of the most intelligent actor-impresarios.” Consider three Heston projects of distinction, all impressively shot widescreen historical sagas in recent memory when Shipman made that evaluation, that, though not on the same level of iconography as Moses and Judah Ben-Hur, offered the outsized leading man opportunities for justification. Director Sam Peckinpah’s Civil War-era frontier saga of Major Dundee (1965) presented him with the virile title role of a disgraced Union major, now commanding a Texas prison camp housing Confederate captives (among them Dundee’s boyhood friend Tyreen, played by Richard Harris), who undertakes a rescue party – including some rebellious inmates with strong soldiering skills (including Tyreen) into Mexico to reclaim captives taken by Apache raiders, and run afoul of French troops below the border. “Full of sweeping action scenes and periodic bursts of the kinetic violence for which director Peckinpah would later become famous,” TCM.com’s Rob Nixon observed, “Major Dundee is really the story of the title character's personal journey to hell and back which is juxtaposed with the Captain Bligh-Mr. Christian-like relationship that rages between Dundee and Tyreen.” Nixon adds that Heston saw it this way: “One of the most crucial, though none of us realized it at the time, was that Columbia, Sam and I all really had different pictures in mind. Columbia, reasonably enough, wanted a cavalry/Indians film as much like Jack Ford's best as possible. I wanted to be the first to make a film that really explored the Civil War. Sam, though he never said anything like this, really wanted to make The Wild Bunch. That's the movie that was steaming in his psyche.” Though production started with the script unfinished, Heston stood by the director and supported him – frequent on-set disagreements notwithstanding – but ultimately front-office interference marred the production and its ultimate lukewarm reception, leavened somewhat in the intervening years by a 2005 expanded version that reinstated four scenes and other footage plus a newly commissioned score to bring it closer to Peckinpah’s original vision. The following year Heston assumed the mantle of a real-life military role: British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, charged in the period of 1884-1885 with defending a strategic British-held Sudanese city from the jihadist forces of the fanatical Mahdi (Laurence Olivier), in director Basil Dearden’s rousing Khartoum (1966). The Cinerama-exhibited adventure earned Heston admiring notices, encapsulated by Richard Roud in The Guardian, who dubbed his depiction of the resolute, destiny-driven Gordon “first-rate….For many years now he has been just about the only one capable of even attempting the really big parts. Now, with his maturity, he adds to his natural physical prestige a fine grasp of character.” As Jeff Rovin noted in The Films of Charlton Heston, Heston said he responded “the single-handed capacity Gordon displayed again and again to control large groups of people quite unarmed and alone, [that] is almost magical...He had a serenity of nature, along with a somewhat irrational temper. He was something of a martinet as well, and a lot of other complicated things. But he did not have that curious neuroticism that, say, [T.E.] Lawrence had, though they both had a sort of soldier mysticism.” Director Tom Gries had steered Heston to acclaim (if not huge box office) in two small, underappreciated projects, Will Penny (1968) and Number One (1969), so when producer Walter Mirisch signed Heston to head a big-screen adaptation of the latter portions of James A. Michener’s best-seller Hawaii, Heston brought Gries aboard for The Hawaiians (1970). Filmed largely on location, it chronicles the exploits of the entrepreneurial bid made by sea captain Whip Hoxworth (Heston as the grandson of the character his Major Dundee co-star Harris played in 1966’s Hawaii) to jumpstart the island’s pineapple industry. His daring maneuvers involve the drafting of labor from the influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the island, including newly indentured servants Mun Ki (Mako) and his second wife Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen). The multigenerational saga portrays clashes of cultures, political infighting and family dysfunction that result from Hawaii’s rapid growth as a center of Pacific commerce. Though Heston maintained an authoritative presence as the growingly prosperous Whip, the film’s multiple storylines kept him from dominating. As TCM.com correspondent Emily Soares notes, Heston was ambivalent about his impact. “I tried my best to dismiss my anxieties about Whip Hoxworth's structural function on the film. Maybe this blunted the swordblade edge an actor should bring to any role. If that's so, I have no excuse for it." Heston expressed concern about not being more involved in his part throughout his journal entries for the production. He says he told producer Walter Mirisch (Hawaii) from the beginning that the real story revolved around Tina Chen's character and not his own. "You also need to fall in love with the guy you're playing, to marry his story....I'd certainly done it with Tommy Gries on Will Penny and Number One, but we somehow fell short on The Hawaiians.” The long and the short of it is that Heston’s restless search for intriguing characters to embody reaped great dividends for movie lovers, and the work that resulted for this birthday honoree is preserved to amaze and argue about when experiencing the scenically spectacular Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Major Dundee (with the original and expanded versions on 2 discs, available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/24455/MAJOR-DUNDEE-1965/), Khartoum (available here: http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26553/KHARTOUM-1966/) and The Hawaiians.