Charlton Heston and the humbling of the alpha male

Charlton Heston, screaming on the beach. Charlton Heston, bleeding out in a fountain. Charlton Heston, being dragged off to the insane asylum.

“I feel lonely.” – Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes

There’s a special place in my heart for Heston’s dark apocalypse trilogy of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the three brutal dystopian futures of Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. I’ve watched each of these movies multiple times over the years, and Heston’s clench-jawed, manly man everyman struts through each one of them like a soon-to-be-deposed king. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Heston had a gung-ho heroic image polished in such films as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. But in the 1970s, he cleverly subverted his image with this run of bleak sci-fi classics, each of which positions Heston as a so-called “superior man” who’s repeatedly humbled.

In every one of these films, he loses, hardly the “heroic narrative” but perfectly in place for the pre-Star Wars bleak vision of much 1970s science fiction. In Apes, he’s discovered he’s been a fool all along, and that his most cynical ideas about humanity have come true. (In the underrated and utterly nihilist Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Heston only pops up briefly to bleed to death and bring on a nuclear apocalypse, making the first movie’s ending seem positively idyllic.)

In The Omega Man, Heston dies Christ-like, shot down and bloody while trying to save the world, while in Soylent Green, he’s hauled off by the police to an asylum or worse, spouting crazy conspiracy theories about humans being turned into food.

Matthias: “You are discarded. You are the refuse of the past.”
Neville: “You are full of crap.” – The Omega Man

It’s easy to see Heston as a dinosaur from another age 50 years on, especially with his image off the screen. Heston in later life was a pretty gung-ho Reagan conservative and infamously a cheerleader for the National Rifle Association. (However, for those who want to paint him entirely as some Trumpian troll in real life, it’s worth noting that he was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.)

But on the screen on the 1970s, Heston’s image was crucial to making the doom trilogy of films work. Our first sight of him in Planet of the Apes is him alone, on a spaceship, smoking a cigar (!!!) and ruminating about man and his place in the universe. In The Omega Man, he spends much of the movie alone in his doomsday bunker of a house, the “last man on earth.” In the crowded future of Soylent Green, he’s rarely alone, but his gradual uncovering of the title conspiracy leaves him utterly alone in a crowd by the end.

Yet what I like about Heston’s clench-jawed manly man image in the apocalypse trilogy is that it’s always on the verge of cracking. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood’s earlier films also served up manly men archetypes, yet Heston’s arrives imperfect from the get-go in these films. He’s the portrait of the American white male circa 1970, screaming “it’s a madhouse” as the world around him changes in ways he can’t fathom. The seeds for the popularity of the flawed, “un-Hollywood” leading men of the 1970s played by DeNiro, Pacino or Hoffman are found here.

Heston is so watchable for me in these films partly because he is humbled, again and again, in this apocalypse trilogy. In Apes, he’s reduced to a mute, naked beast, running through the bush in terror.

Life is a series of humiliations for us all, really, of attempts to climb to the top of the heap and constantly finding the flaws within.

Heston’s vivid presence keeps these films alive today, even with his sometimes retrograde sexism and unquestioned white privilege. The subtle ways the narratives in these films question his status stand out now. The opening half hour of so of Planet of the Apes, before those apes come along, is a showcase for his diamond-sharp, Darwinian worldview. One of the central images of Planet of the Apes is him realising he’s no longer the alpha male, again and again.

George Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? YOU led me around on a LEASH!
Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.
George Taylor: Now you know better.

Mere minutes after this exchange, Heston’s Taylor is left weeping on an empty beach, pounding sand and beholding the ruin of his world.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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