The Westerns of Charlton Heston
Not the brightest Western star in the Hollywood firmament
You might think that an all-American gun-loving macho guy like Charlton Heston (left), whose film career spanned the 1950s and 60s, would have been big in Westerns, and indeed he did appear in a few, but not that many, considering, and what’s more, very few of them were good.
It may have been that he had ambitions to be a fine actor in bigger pictures, and indeed being Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra or Detective Vargas in A Touch of Evil, as well as his ‘epic’ roles as Moses, John the Baptist, Ben Hur and so on, were perhaps more in line with what he wanted to do than ‘just Westerns’. Who knows? He did ten big-screen oaters (depending on your definition of oater), certainly way fewer than specialists such as Randolph Scott (63) or Audie Murphy (33) but also fewer than Hollywood confrères such as James Stewart or Henry Fonda (both 21).
In any case, pretty well any actor worth his salt had to climb into the saddle a few times in the 1950s and Heston was no exception. He started in 1952 with Paramount’s The Savage, directed by George Marshall. This was an earnest version of the old yarn in which a wagon train is attacked by Indians and all the settlers are killed except a small boy who is adopted by the Sioux and brought up by their chief. The whites, in breach of treaties, move into the Black Hills of Dakota and the young man (Heston) is now conflicted: where do his loyalties lie? There were earlier silent movies based on this idea and later pictures too. ‘The Savage’ is meant semi-ironically because in these movies the hero brings peace between the red and white peoples and sometimes shows more civilizational attributes than the hard-liners on each side. The Savage, though, is a bit of a plodder in this line. Yes, there is action and Charlton goes Hestoning around the hills a lot with his shirt off showing how he has become the alpha male of his Sioux tribe. The trouble comes with the script, uncredited on screen but in fact by Sydney Boehm and LL Foreman, which is stilted and over-earnest. It’s a colorful US Cavalry-and-Indians romp of the period but with a sub-Broken Arrow vaguely pro-Indian message.
In 1953 Heston was a young Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady, with the excellent Susan Hayward, but you can't really qualify that as a Western. It was a biopic/drama/romance.
That was followed the same year by two genuine-article Westerns, but both frankly bad, Pony Express and Arrowhead. The first, directed by Jerry Hopper, who went on to do wagonloads of TV Westerns but very few feature ones, probably wisely, had Heston as Buffalo Bill. But of all the daft movies which twisted Western history into absurd myth (and there were many) Pony Express must be one of the most egregious. The ridiculous plot, by Charles Marquis Warren, reduces Wild Bill Hickok (Forrest Tucker, billed only fourth) to little more than a sidekick. Paramount threw budget at it: the picture had some stirring Paul Sawtell music, Ray Rennahan Technicolor cinematography and nice Kanab, Utah locations. But it was one of the weakest Westerns of an admittedly great year.
Warren moved up from writer to director/writer for Arrowhead, released three months after Pony Express. This was even worse. As well as being second-rate as a film, it was also toxic. An introductory on-screen text announces “The character of Ed Bannon [the part played by Heston] was drawn in part from the actual Chief of Scouts of the United States Army of the Southwest – Al SIEBER.” I don’t know which part. This Bannon bears no resemblance whatever to Sieber either in the facts of his life or the kind of man he was. Heston’s version is a racist murderer and a sadistic and bitter man, and Al Sieber was none of these things. The trailer is almost worse than the movie. It begins, “In the great Western tradition of the immortal Shane, Paramount NOW presents” (as if the two movies were even in the same league) “Arrowhead.” Honestly, this Western is very poor, and Heston frankly unpleasant in it.
So all in all, Heston’s Western career had not begun auspiciously.
In 1955 Paramount came up with an historical epic/Western and cast Heston as Lt William Clark to Fred MacMurray’s Capt Meriwether Lewis in the big Rudolph Maté-directed VistaVision and Technicolor picture The Far Horizons. It’s historical hooey again; in 2011 Time magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, and they had a point. Still, we don’t hold that against Westerns too much (they are entertainment, not documentaries). Heston, who gets most screen time, is sour and morose as Clark, who steals away Lewis’s girl (Barbara Hale) and then falls out with Lewis, partly because of this, on the expedition. Sacajawea (as she is called here) is blue-eyed Donna Reed, in unconvincing heavy make-up, doing her Debra Paget act, and Clark has a romance with her (Hale being forgotten now). The Hans Salter music is occasionally vigorous and stirring but it’s about the only thing that is.
That year too Charlton played a Texas rancher in Lucy Gallant, but it was a present-day romance with Jane Wyman and not at all a Western.
The following year Heston returned to Maté with a more ‘Western’ Western, Three Violent People. It is never quite clear who the bellicose trio of the title are, as everyone is quite violent really, but it is certain that Heston is one of them. This picture is more soap opera than horse opera but in either case is, again, not very good. It’s a Reconstruction story. In Westerns Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster with no saving graces. Such Westerns always feature evil carpetbaggers crookedly doing honest, decent Confederate ranchers out of their livelihoods. Doubtless that went on but some mention of the positive aspects of the period might have added a little verisimilitude. But then verisimilitude isn’t really what Westerns do either, or what they are for, or at least not Paramount Westerns of the 1950s. Anne Baxter is excellent as the saloon gal on the make but Heston’s character, with the silly name Colt Saunders, is again stiff, priggish and unpleasant. Once more shot in VistaVision and Technicolor, this time by Loyal Griggs (Oscared for Shane) in pleasant Old Tucson locations, it’s a good-looking picture, but once more not at all a classy Western.
Perhaps Charlton thought of giving up on the genre.
But in 1958 he was cast in the big (in every sense) The Big Country. This was Heston’s best Western to date, thanks largely to its director William Wyler and star Gregory Peck, who is particularly good as the Eastern dude, ex-ship’s captain, who shows a great deal of Western grit. We also have a superb performance by Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for it. Everything about the picture is on the grand scale. As well as the big stars, top-notch director, huge budget and 166-minute runtime, it has big sweeping, Red Rock Canyon and Mojave Desert locations photographed in wide-screen color by Franz Planer. I like the way that in the dialogue the bigness is constantly referred to in a self-congratulatory way, until Peck’s character is heartily sick of it. As he has navigated the Pacific Ocean, to him it’s just a little patch of land. 1958 was a time when theatrical movies were reeling from the shock of TV. Westerns certainly were migrating from the big to the (then) very small screen. The major studios replied with budget, color (color TV was still relatively uncommon), widescreen and scope. In ’56 Wyler had hit the jackpot with the semi-Western Friendly Persuasion, Oscared for best film, and the following year there would be Ben Hur, with, of course, Charlton Heston. Heston handles his part in The Big Country well, though it’s definitely a smaller role than he was used to (he had led or co-starred in all previous Westerns).
There was now quite a Western hiatus for Heston, as he became fictional or factional heroes such as Ben-Hur, El Cid, John the Baptist and Michelangelo, as well as being heroic for 55 days in Peking, but in 1965 he found himself on Sam Peckinpah’s set leading as Major Dundee. This was either a great work or art cut to ribbons by the Columbia executives or a rather overblown and meandering Western with overacting stars, depending on your point of view. At any rate Heston and co-star Richard Harris spent much of the shooting time trying to upstage each other, and Heston got to the point with Peckinpah’s alcoholism and incompetence that he hesitated between punching the director on the jaw and walking off the set. Actually, when martinet Union officer Dundee (Heston) becomes obsessed with his foray into Mexico, sinks into alcoholic depression and drags his exhausted men after him at whatever cost, you wonder if this wasn’t Sam himself we are talking about. Many have seen it as a Vietnam parable, and Michael Atkinson in Village Voice wrote, “Major Dundee is virtually without rival as a reflection of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, because it simultaneously gloats on irresponsible bloodshed, abhors military slaughter, and couldn't give a good goddamn about life or death.” At any rate the picture was slammed by critics and performed poorly at the box office.
At last, shot in 1967, released in April ’68, came a fine Western that Heston was really good in. You could argue not only that it was his best but even that it was the only one that was good. It was back at Paramount but a ‘smaller’ picture, Will Penny, directed by Tom Gries and written by him as a kind of big-screen expansion of an episode of the TV show The Westerner, The Line Camp, which Gries had done. Heston plays the titular aging cowboy, a truly decent man. He has no graces, is gauche, illiterate and has, tragically, no experience of building and sustaining relationships. I don’t think Heston has ever done anything finer. He himself said that he thought it was his best performance. He once said, "The script for Will Penny was one of the best I ever read; it made a marvelous Western." The picture is marred by a dreadful piece of hamming from Donald Pleasence as the villain (he was always very bad in Westerns) but it is very well acted otherwise and beautifully shot, by the great Lucien Ballard, in the Inyo National Forest. Roger Ebert said that “Will Penny occupies this land of 'real' cowboys most convincingly. Its heroes are not very handsome or glamorous. Its title character … is a man in his mid-40s who has been away from society so long he hardly knows how to react when he is treated as a civilized being.”
And Heston wore a great hat. He said of it, "Hats are very important. I used that hat in about four Westerns. Then someone stole it on me. Wish I could find him. I’d kill him. You get a good hat, you gotta hang on to it."
And that was that for the 1960s. In 1972 he appeared in the European family adventure The Call of the Wild, which you might say was vaguely Westernish, I suppose. Two late feature Westerns remained, first in 1976 when he was a bitter and angry lawman in The Last Hard Men, a fashionably violent and rather lurid 70s picture co-written by Brian Garfield (so it should have been good) but directed by Andrew V McLaglen, who was very much in the second league. Like Major Dundee, it was saved by James Coburn, who this time played the bad guy.
Then in 1979, when he was 56, Heston played a grizzled old-timer in The Mountain Men, one of those ‘end-of-the-West’ pictures in which the hero is a man of the past with nowhere to go in the new world. It too wasn’t very good, to say the least – review coming shortly.
And for big-screen Westerns, that was pretty well all she wrote. He had a small part in the Wyatt Earp story Tombstone in 1993 and he did another cameo as Brigham Young in a Mormon tale (yet again with Coburn, this time colorful as Porter Rockwell) in the 1995 TV movie The Avenging Angel, starring Tom Berenger. He also narrated another TV movie, Texas.
But compared with some of his fellow actors of the time Charlton Heston did not excel in this genre. With the exception of Will Penny, and possibly The Big Country, most of his oaters were mediocre at best. Of course Chuck has his fans, who will doubtless disagree with this assessment, and they are welcome. Chacun à son goût.