Perhaps no other movie actor will ever come close to the extraordinarily powerful screen presence of a Charlton Heston.
Charlton Heston was at the peak of his career in the mid-50s to the mid-60s – at the very time when my Baby Boomer generation was looking for iconic screen heroes. Heston was part of the good days of my youth. This was when happiness was simply a weekend at the movies and a hamburger sandwich, a coke and mocha ice cream snack at Fairmont after that.
When I read about Heston’s passing at age 84 in Beverly Hills, I was filled with sadness and nostalgia. I had a flashback of memories of the old haunts of my uncomplicated youth.
Heston’s publicist of many years, Michael Levine, paid this ultimate tribute to his client: “If Hollywood had a Mt. Rushmore, Heston’s face would be on it. He was a heroic figure that I don’t think exists to the same degree in Hollywood today.”
For today’s Gen X and Gen Y, Heston will perhaps be nothing more than an irrelevant memory. They may have caught a glimpse of him here and there on old films on cable that their parents and even grandparents watch.
Midway where Heston played a fictional naval captain in the World War II naval battle is currently running on Cinemax. A few weeks ago, 55 Days in Peking — another hit movie where Heston also starred — was also running on the same cable channel.
But to the post-war Baby Boomers like me, Charlton Heston was “Moses” in the film classic The Ten Commandments and also Judah Ben Hur in Ben Hur. Charlton Heston breathed life into the characters he played — mostly men of history, character and substance.
Heston’s other big movie hits were El Cid, Planet of the Apes and Earthquake. He was not short of recognition. “Ben-Hur” reaped 11 Academy Awards, a feat that has only been tied by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
It will be tough matching Heston’s portrayal of historical roles which included Andrew Jackson (“The President’s Lady,” “The Buccaneer”), Moses (“The Ten Commandments”), Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, the title role of “El Cid,” John the Baptist (“The Greatest Story Ever Told”), Michelangelo (“The Agony and the Ecstasy”), General Gordon (“Khartoum”), Marc Antony (“Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra”), Cardinal Richelieu (“The Three Musketeers”) and Henry VIII (“The Prince and the Pauper”).
In those days, movies could only be screened in one Manila downtown theatre. If the movie was a blockbuster, it would run for weeks, months and in the case of The Ten Commandments, it went on exhibition for more than a year.
The Ten Commandments had a running time of nearly five hours but it was such a mega event that you had to pre-book with Galaxy Theatre to be able to watch it.
The major film distributors had their own movie outlets in those days. MGM screened exclusively at the Ideal, Fox at Ever, Top Rank and Columbia at State, United Artists at Odeon, Warner Brothers and Paramount at Avenue and Universal at Universal. All of these movie houses were along Rizal Avenue.
Heston’s The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur enjoyed the longest exhibition here. I can only think of The Longest Day and The Sound of Music (both screened at Ever as these were Fox releases) as the only movies that approximated the exhibition period of the two Heston movies.
Heston convincingly portrayed Moses. The ‘Parting of the Red Sea’ portion of the film was something of a motion picture technological feat then. My maternal grandmother burst into hosannas as she beheld some scenes in The Ten Commandments — what other endorsement for Charlton Heston’s awesome impact can be better than that?
My siblings, who accompanied our granny to watch the movie, felt somewhat embarrassed to the people around them in the theatre as our granny would unabashedly raise her praying voice to accompany a majestic biblical scene.
To many of us who were then students at the Ateneo Grade School, The Ten Commandments was a prescribed viewing, a sort of field trip for the class. Of course, nobody complained. At that age, who would not prefer to be in the movies than in the classroom? Needless to say, we were quizzed by our religion class teacher after we saw the movie.
We were likewise made to watch Ben Hur, which also provided points for discussion in our religion classes. The “Ben Hur” fiction of Lew Wallace evolved around the era of Christ and featured the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion.
True to form, our granny again broke into prayer in the scenes which showed Jesus Christ in Ben Hur. Having heard of the embarrassment my siblings suffered when they watched The Ten Commandments with our granny — I wisely opted to watch the movie together with my Ateneo classmates.
There must be something to praying while watching religious movies. Our Macgregor granny died at the age of 103.
I will miss Charlton Heston just as I miss those good ole days.