Nineteen seventy-eight was a tough year for tough guys in film.
Audiences responded to the puerile infantilism of John Belushi in National Lampoon’s Animal House, the pouty self-involvement of John Travolta in Grease, and the sensitive stoicism of Jon Voight in Coming Home, but where were the adventurers, roughnecks, and swashbucklers who made American movies so distinctive?
To be sure, Clint Eastwood was as popular as ever, but that year he was seen in a comedy centered on an orangutan — Every Which Way but Loose — rather than as Dirty Harry. What about Steve McQueen? The strong, impassive star of The Great Escape and Bullitt was in theaters, but in a lamentable change of pace, an adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The saddest case of all might have been that of John Wayne, who had made his final film two years earlier — Don Siegel’s dirgelike western The Shootist — and would be felled by stomach cancer the following year.
A tide was turning. Tough guys were either reinventing themselves or fading from view. In March of that year, however, a brisk action film was released that bucked the trend. The plot of Gray Lady Down was simple: After accidentally crashing into a freighter, a submarine tumbles to a sea shelf in the Atlantic, where it remains until a rescue operation commences. As directed by the talented, efficient David Greene, the film holds the viewer’s attention thanks to its premise alone — when is help coming? will the men go crazy in the meantime? — but its impact is attributable almost entirely to the presence of its leading man, Charlton Heston.
In an attention-grabbing, sometimes thrilling performance, Heston plays Captain Paul Blanchard, who oversees the sinking submarine (and its anxious, erratic crew) with grace and grit. Early in the film, after the engine room has flooded and water comes close to breaching the control room, Blanchard barks, “Secure that door!” The captain is informed that men are behind that door, but — knowing that the safety of the submarine as a whole is more important than the fate of a few — he does not alter his order. “Secure it!” Blanchard repeats, in Heston’s assertive (but not angry) voice.
Yet the lanky, bearded Heston also expresses calm and compassion — not smarmy, “I feel your pain” sentimentality, but the sort of confidence that only a natural leader can project. In one touching moment, Blanchard expresses trust in an inexperienced seaman tasked with serving as a medic, saying in a calm, unruffled manner, “Let’s have a look at your patients.” The same note of manly confidence is found in Blanchard’s two-word response to an Annapolis-trained officer who wonders whether he will ever go home again: “Hell, yes.” Heston’s delivery makes believers of us all.
Gray Lady Down is no masterpiece, but it is a potent reminder of the satisfaction of watching a man of action — in control of his emotions, in charge of his underlings, and in command of his vessel. By 1978, such characterizations had become rare, but for Heston, they were old hat. Audiences who knew him from such classics as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) expected the actor to embody a certain kind of man: brawny but dignified, virtuous yet vigorous.
In fact, Heston (1923–2008) recognized that such qualities were inherent in his screen persona. In an honorable new biography of Heston, author Marc Eliot offers a quote from the actor in which he reflected on his function in such disaster movies as Earthquake (1974) and Airport 1975. “No matter how versatile an actor may be or how he strives to widen his range, he must deal with his shadow,” Heston said. “And my shadow has been Moses, El Cid, and Michelangelo, not to mention a president or two. If you need a chariot race run, a ceiling painted, or the Red Sea parted, you think of me. So in this film it isn’t necessary to explain that my character will be responsible.”
Eliot links the actor’s preference in parts with a childhood trauma. At age ten, Heston was uprooted from his rough-and-tumble upbringing in Michigan — “I pictured myself like Tom Sawyer — hunting and fishing, trapping, canoeing, and all that stuff,” Heston recalled — when his mother walked out on his father and decamped out of state. “For the rest of his life, Heston sought to reclaim that lost world through the creative universe of acting,” Eliot writes, “in characters and films that resonated with him and that would define him as a figure of strength, stature, leadership, and ideals.”
As recounted by Eliot, Heston held himself to high standards off-screen, too. Among Hollywood stars, Heston stood out for the integrity with which he led his life. “He lived an exemplary life as a family man, married to the same woman for sixty-four years,” Eliot writes. This record distinguishes Heston even from stars known for their on-screen virtue — after all, even Henry Fonda (a.k.a. Abe Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, and Tom Joad) was married five times — and it may have limited his appeal among tastemakers. As Heston admitted in an interview in 1977: “I’m not a public drunk. I’ve only had one wife. My kids aren’t runaways. People don’t find a big public flaw in me, and they seem to need that from anyone who’s had success and attention.”
At the same time, Heston was no square. To the contrary, Eliot’s book firmly establishes that the actor was always game for a good fight. A sought-after commodity after the success of The Ten Commandments, Heston leveraged his standing to insist to producer Albert Zugsmith that Orson Welles direct — not just co-star in — Touch of Evil. “Zugsmith wanted to make the movie with Charlton Heston, and Heston used that to his advantage,” Eliot writes, “telling the producer he would do the film only if Welles directed.”
In life, Heston’s courage could manifest itself in surprising ways (befitting an actor who described himself as a political independent). In the early 1980s, after being appointed by Ronald Reagan to oversee a task force on the arts, Heston revealed himself to be keenly committed to the cause of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In 1990, the actor struck a blow against political correctness when he submitted his resignation from Actors’ Equity in protest of the union’s attempt to disallow Jonathan Pryce from playing a Eurasian part in Miss Saigon on Broadway. “The council’s obscenely racist rejection of Jonathan Pryce’s right to play the part he created in Miss Saigon revolts me,” Heston wrote at the time. And, throughout his life, Heston was resolute in his advocacy for civil rights.
Never was the actor more unbowed than when standing up for the Second Amendment during the five years (1998–2003) he headed the National Rifle Association. Eliot works overtime to clearly and cool-headedly establish the thinking behind Heston’s involvement with the NRA. For example, he quotes generously from Heston’s 1997 speech to the National Press Club, in which he eloquently and astutely characterized the Second Amendment as “the first among equals” in the Bill of Rights: “It alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear. The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows rights to exist at all.”
Much is made of the plum parts Heston may have lost as a result of his NRA presidency. “He said to me one day at the height of the controversy,” his daughter Holly recalls, “‘I worked long and hard to get where I am so I can stand behind what I believe in, and I don’t care if I don’t get a job.’” To his credit, Eliot recognizes that the “graylisting” suffered by the actor “was enforced by the children of those whose careers were curtailed by the blacklist because of their political beliefs in the ’50s” — an instance of total hypocrisy that is, sadly, par for the course in Hollywood. Meryl Streep or Lena Dunham weighing in on a presidential election is welcome, but Charlton Heston speaking his mind on gun rights? Not so much.
Yet it matters little in the end that Heston died marginalized in his industry. Heston’s authority comes across even in mediocre films beneath his station (just as his decency shines through in the grossly unfair interview he is put through in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine), proving the prescience of French film critic Michel Mourlet, who praised Heston in a famous article in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1960. Mourlet wrote that the actor’s “eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips” were “what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase.” In other words, Heston is worth watching even when a particular film might not be.
Nonetheless, this book arrives at an apropos moment. Had Heston not succumbed to Alzheimer’s, he might have lived to see his popularity spike once again. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often invoked the names of Generals George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur with particular relish. To many, the name of Charlton Heston is similarly associated with the twin virtues of strength and nobility. See? Tough guys never go out of style.
Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.