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Charlton Heston 1924-2008

The subject of the single most notorious pronouncement in the history of film criticism — Michel Mourlet’s proclamation that “Charlton Heston is an axiom of the cinema” — Heston made himself easy to dismiss in his later years with his own notorious pronouncements — “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands” — on behalf of the NRA.  Yet I never loved him more than when he got up and walked out on a duplicitous, condescending Michael Moore in “Bowling for Columbine.”  Richard Widmark he was not — and in some ways, Heston’s stolid, marmoreal qualities were the exact opposite of Widmark’s — but his place in film history is secure, if only for his role, both on screen and behind it, in the making of “Touch of Evil.”

The full Mourlet quote, as reproduced in “Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s”:

“Charlton Heston is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso – this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that Charlton Heston, by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like “Hiroshima mon amour” or “Citizen Kane,” films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates Charlton Heston. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

110 comments to Charlton Heston 1924-2008

  • Thanks, James. Shorts might actually be more difficult to show, tho. And this isn’t history class–that would be a better venue, I agree–it’s their ‘family night.’

  • Rick Segreda

    “But I still don’t think there is a problem with admitting that there are eras that have gone before that are indeed uniformly better than the one in which we’re currently living.”

    It may be that certain eras in real life are better than the one in which we are currently living, but the problem with such nostalgia is that fifty years from now somebody quotes me as the Alexander Wolcott of MY generation.

  • DigitalTramp

    Nothing good comes from nostalgia. Except, maybe a brief denial of death. Now, appreciating good work, that’s something different. If that work was made in 1927, so be it. Most of Mr. Neibaur’s “red flags” wave in the direction of nostalgia, except for his…

    “But I still don’t think there is a problem with admitting that there are eras that have gone before that are indeed uniformly better than the one in which we’re currently living.”

    Here I agree him, only in that there is no difference between championing a film (over another, which we do always!) and heralding an era (over another). As Dellamorte advised recently (as others have as well): “…make a case.” Rick, rise to the challenge! Risk being Wolcott.

    I liked “Juno” as well, but doubt its staying power.

    Neibaur, in some way, brings light to a phenomenon I’ve always been fascinated by, that INNOCENCE in a medium or style or innovation, yields quite powerful and seemingly insurmountable stuff. Untested and uninvestigated really, but an idea I have run into often when comparing works.

  • jbryant

    Since it’s literally impossible to bring a historical perspective to the era in which one is currently living, I’m wary of beating up on it too much. Those of us who love film are often more conscientious about seeking out older classics and forgotten gems than the myriad of contemporary choices we’re given. Does nostalgia sometimes make us forget that there’s more to contemporary cinema than whatever’s opening at the cineplex this week? I expect we’re all missing or don’t have access to a large number of fine recent films that may become tomorrow’s overlooked gems (and future film buffs will undoubtedly cite them as evidence of how good we had it back then).

  • Rick Segreda

    I would love for you, Digital Tramp, to develop your “innocence” speculation into a full-fledged thesis.

    I enjoy, and even appreciate, nostalgia (without it would we have had Proust?), as long as it is kept in perspective.

    Personally, my favorite period of film (and television) begins with “Bonnie & Clyde” and concludes with “The Godfather Part II,” particularly around 1970-71 with such movies as “The Last Picture Show,””Patton,” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”

    The main reason is because for this brief period, with the censors now gone, mainstream, studio-financed, American movies experimented with an uncommon intelligence, maturity, and artistic ambition — and amazingly audiences were receptive to this. The new directors were introducing nouvelle vague ideas, the new stars were willing to take risks, and veterans like Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder took advantage of this creative moment to produce some of their best work.

    This all came crashing down, alas, with “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and the failings of the Jimmy Carter administration. The latter two films plus Ronald Reagan heralded the Long Dark Age of juvenile populist stupidity.

    Of course, even in the early 70’s there were terrible popular films (Love Story) and good, even great, films have continued in the last few decades.

  • James L. Neibaur

    Digital Tramp –
    It would be nostalgic perhaps had I lived in the eras I identified, but it really is an attempted objective opinion on one movie era over another. I do admit the occasional sentimental or nostalgic attachment to things from my own time that are not particulary good in any critical sense (especially lousy songs). But not in this case.

    It is indeed easier to assess an era afterward than during. I recall during the 70s many people dismissing it as a cultural wasteland, when it is, in fact, one of the strongest decades in American cinema. But there are certain periods in American film history that are so strong, they stand out as particularly great. And some where there just happen to be fewer really interesting films.

    The blockbuster era of Jaws, et. al., is something from which we may never recover. And that’s a damn shame.


  • DigitalTramp


    Though I see your point and am sure it is true in your case, it’s strange how a form of nostalgia can exist without a person living during the time period embraced. “A man out of time” or “old soul” sort of thing, and it’s funny I have a friend who is 42 years of age and is overly fond of TCM and old movies. His father was from the WWII era, and this friend of mine likes that “black and white” (sans color’s almost drab or hyper realism, the more modern era’s complex and dichotomous characterizations, too many choices, etc.) mentality – men were men, codes were kept, morality was not confusing, gender roles were clear cut, etc. etc.

    We can be nostalgic for an idea, or for the lives of our parents.

    Rick, all I can say about the curse of “Jaws” (still, I think an excellent piece of pop cinema) and “Star Wars” (not) is that thankfully it didn’t affect all filmmakers. We have had exceptional work, masterpieces and ripe periods of cinema since then.

  • James L. Neibaur

    Yeah, I can admit to a hankerin’ for some of the gritty precode films, even those that are less than satisfactory. But I can approach them objectively even if I subjectively enjoy them. My embarrasing nostalgic bursts occur when I uncritically embrace the Elvis Presley movies (going way beyond apologist mode for the abberations that are King Creole and Flaming Star and seguing right into the Norman Taurog stinkers). And that is borne of sentiment from my own youth.
    Your young (well 42 is younger than I am) friend appreciating the TCM product is so beautifully described by you (men-were-men, codes-were-kept, etc) that I feel the need to join him!


  • Michael Worrall

    James wrote: “But If we choose the great movies of that era, I really think we would find them to be better than the great films of the current era. Their average films are better than the average films now. And the “bad” movies like The East Side Kids misadventures or Buster Crabbe oaters are certainly better than the bad movies of today.”

    Could it be said that, even in the most wooden MGM prestige film, there was a level of craft that could be expected that has since become scarce in modern commercial filmmaking?

  • myspace fun things…

    Sorry, don’t agree 100% with you on this!…