By Tommy Hough
It's easy to dismiss Charlton Heston as the rifle-waving, right-wing lunatic he became in his later years, just as it's easy to dismiss Heston's acting as scene-chewing and posing – although in his prime no one filled up space on a screen the way Heston could.
Whether playing Moses for Cecil B. DeMille, riding a chariot and challenging Roman tyranny in Ben-Hur, or mowing down mutants with a grease gun while wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, colorful ascot and lanky grin in Omega Man, Heston knew exactly how to position himself on camera, grit his teeth, and use his voice to lend overblown grandeur to the silliest dialogue.
Similarly, just as his films ran the gamut from epic myth-making to check-cashing, there was more to the variety of causes Charlton Heston stood for in his 83 years than the ugly, virulent right-wing politics he aligned himself with in the sunset of his life.
It may be hard to believe now, but Heston mustered a wellspring of courage and made his name as a Hollywood maverick by boldly marching with Dr. Martin Luther King and dozens of other Civil Rights leaders during the March on Washington in August 1963, at a time when few in Hollywood – or even American life – dared to stand in active support of civil rights. Heston did.
A few years later, in 1968, Heston spoke in favor of gun control after the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy. As president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1980 he marched in support of his fellow actors during a lengthy work stoppage. Heston even parodied himself by reading a 12-year-old letter he'd written to NBC regarding the content of Saturday Night Live while a guest on the show's 15th anniversary special in 1989. In a series of Budweiser radio ads in the mid-1990s, he utilized his overblown style to hilarious effect.
But sadly, the man's progressive activism underwent a sea change with the onset of the Reagan era, first glimpsed in 1985 when he emerged as a spokesperson for the Reed Irvine-financed "watchdog" group Accuracy In Media, which was the first modern shot across the bow by a defined conservative organization calling news they didn't like – and didn't want reported – as nebulous "liberal bias," thereby setting the stage for the outright fiction of Fox News.
The same can be said for Heston's activism and eventual leadership of the NRA. Most Americans under 35 will only ever remember Charlton Heston for his role engaging NRA members as the organization jumped down its current rabbit hole of irresponsibility. Holding a vintage rifle over his head at the NRA convention in Denver in April 1999, days after the mass killing at nearby Columbine High School, Heston reprised the tired, ridiculous, and stupid NRA mantra that his firearm wouldn't be taken away except "out of my cold, dead hands." What an idiotic legacy.
Heston's embrace of the NRA in light of the slaughter at Columbine may speak volumes about what he believed to be his maverick style, but it's a tragic contrast to his televised appeal for calm in support of President Johnson's 1968 Gun Control Act, alongside Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck. How the man went from one extreme to another remains a mystery except to his family and those closest to him. But despite his positions and choice of company in the 1980s and beyond, one can also credit Heston for the compassionate, wise choices of activism he made earlier in his life, when he was free of the Alzheimer's which ended his life this weekend.
Granted, I'm a fan of several of his films, from his turn in what could have been the calamitous role of a border town cop in Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil (1958), to the chariot-riding hero of Ben-Hur (1959), to the Captain Ahab turned renegade Civil War officer in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965), to the scenery-chewing, and frequently mute, captive astronaut in Planet of the Apes (1968).
Heston later played a gun-toting plague survivor who engaged in one of Hollywood's first onscreen interracial sexual encounters in Omega Man (1971), and a New York City cop vaguely aware of the joy of trees, flowers, clean air and fresh food (the environment was another one of Heston's passions before his political sea change) in the futuristic, if silly, Soylent Green (1973). After that came Earthquake (1974), and the check-cashing began in earnest.
While I prefer to remember Charlton Heston as a champion of equity and civil rights, risking his box office appeal and career by appearing with Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August of 1963, I also like to remember him as the guy who saved Sam Peckinpah's career while simultaneously threatening to kill him on location filming Major Dundee in Durango, Mexico, in 1964.
Even at that early stage in his career, the cinematically brilliant Peckinpah was irretrievably beset by demons, paranoia, and abundant drinking and drug use. Stories about Peckinpah's inebriated abuse of the Major Dundee cast and crew in between takes is legendary. As work fell behind schedule, Hollywood sent executives to Durango to get the unstable Peckinpah back on track. When the mercurial director continued to fall behind schedule, deviated from the script, and ran maniacally over budget, the Hollywood suits threatened to fire him, no matter how loyally the cast and crew stood by their weird, troubled leader.
When Heston heard about Peckinpah's possible removal, he brought his star power to bear and stepped in. Charlton Heston had been one of Sam Peckinpah's most vocal supporters in the pre-production for Major Dundee, and after seeing Peckinpah's brilliant 1962 western Ride the High Country utilized his Hollywood clout to ensure Peckinpah landed the job of directing Dundee.
So when Heston learned Peckinpah was going to be fired, ostensibly for going over budget, he declared he'd quit if Peckinpah were fired, and offered his salary to cover cost overruns provided the production of Major Dundee continue with Peckinpah at the helm. According to actor L.Q. Jones the studio bosses accepted, to Heston's surprise, thereby calling his bluff.
Heston stayed true to his pledge and forfeited a significant portion of his salary to keep Peckinpah on board, and when the director was too loaded to work, Heston stepped in and directed a number of key scenes in Major Dundee himself. Legend has it during one particularly ugly moment when Peckinpah was berating the cast and crew, a fed-up Heston in full costume, mounted on his horse, rode up to the director, drew his cavalry sword to Peckinpah's belly and threatened to kill him if he didn't start treating everyone better.
They don't make movies, movie stars or movie directors like that anymore. You don't have the lead actor being the responsible one, going so far as to threaten to kill the director if he didn't quit behaving like a maniac. And can you imagine any movie star today putting their financial worth and reputation so far on the line as to forfeit their salary to keep a director on board? That's passion for cinema, however dysfunctional getting there may have been.
So along with talking down a wildly megalomaniacal Sam Peckinpah, consider Charlton Heston for his real-life participation in the March on Washington, or curiously watching the ultimate counterculture movie Woodstock (!) in a deserted, post-plague Los Angeles in Omega Man. Consider Heston's rejection of Senator McCarthy's communist witch hunts in the 1950s, and his support for civil rights in the 1960s.
But indeed, equally consider his later, lamentable advocacy for the NRA, his fateful decision to embrace gun worship in Denver only days after Columbine, and his clueless appearance with white supremacist Gordon Lee Baum at the 1986 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Just as Heston's earlier advocacy was laudable, his later choices and moral positions became deplorable. Even in death, those simply cannot be excused.
By Tommy Hough
It was General Patton who said, "Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man," but that's not stopping the federal government from spending untold amounts of your money to finish building 670 miles of new and "improved" border fortifications by the end of this year along our border with Mexico.
In doing so, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is announcing it will waive itself from federal environmental laws in order to finish the Great Wall of America – not the first time the Bush administration has excused itself from abiding by the law of the land to pursue an incredibly simplistic, ineffective approach to an otherwise complex problem.
According to the Los Angeles Times, as the wall is built piecemeal across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the "waivers will allow Homeland Security" to "slash" through a wide array of environmental and cultural laws in one the most expansive examples of a federal agency ignoring laws you and I are obligated to abide by.
Naturally, the waivers are are already controversial with environmentalists and border communities and border communities that have little political power, which see the advancing wall as a federal imposition that will decimate the environment and disrupt age-old wildlife corridors. Meanwhile, the fence plans are being praised by the usual conservatives who championed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite the initial reluctance of President Bush, who has said a broader approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration – one of the very, very few instances I actually agree with the man.
The chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus in the House is, regrettably, San Diego's own Congressman Brian Bilbray, who told the L.A. Times, "It's great. This is the priority area where most of the illegal activity is going on and where most of the deaths are occurring. The quicker we can get the physical fence up, the sooner we'll avoid situations like the deaths of agents. And it's still a national security issue. You just have to stop this kind of open traffic along the border."
I'd like to ask the congressman to tell me when he plans on having a fence built along the 1,969 miles of border between the U.S. and Canada. If national security is truly an issue, sir, we must lock ourselves in on both sides of the continent, and only come out to get the paper, go to the bathroom, and sign for all the stuff we're importing from China in big, unchecked, freight containers. Or we only reacting to racist concerns when it comes to our national security?
Surely you realize, Mr. Bilbray, that other than the Communist Bloc, the last major nation to undergo a wall-building campaign was France. It was called the Maginot Line, and as the French will be happy to tell you, it was a miserable failure. General Patton warned as much 65 years ago. Walls say more about you than what you're trying to keep out. They are not particularly reflective of the spirit of America, sir, and in 1,000 years pieces of this wall will still stand where it is being built now, with the intended purpose of its construction long discredited and deservedly mocked.
I'm opposed to illegal immigration, and I have no problem with the enforcement of our nation's laws. Illegal immigration is, like the term says, illegal. So instead, why don't we spend the money on increased human-to-human border security, and fund additional enforcement by fining those who knowingly hire and exploit illegal immigrants.
This isn't rocket science, its political hysteria, and the answer the administration has come up with is a racist child's solution. We have a long way to go towards growing up, and we need real border and immigration policy reform now.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.