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70mm movies of Charlton Heston
4 October 1924 - 5 April 2008

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in70mm.com
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Rick Mitchell, Hollywood, USA Date: 11.04.2008
"Ben Hur", London, England

If there was one actor who symbolized the 70mm roadshow era of the Fifties and Sixties, it was Charlton Heston. He appeared in three 65mm productions, "BEN-HUR", "THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD", and "KHARTOUM", all in Camera 65/Ultra Panavision, a record for any star. A single Todd-AO feature; "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965). Two of his three Technirama films, "EL CID" and "55 DAYS AT PEKING", were roadshown with 70mm prints, though only the first was so presented in the United States. And there were even two 70mm blowups of his VistaVision shot "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS", one in England in 1968 and another shown in the United States in 1990.

Heston seemed uniquely suited for these types of films. In an interview, he was quoted as saying that "his was not a 20th Century face", but that was applicable to his entire screen persona. I haven't seen many of his contemporary Fifties films recently, but my recollection is that he seemed awkwardly anachronistic in most of them, even westerns like "THE BIG COUNTRY". But no American actor seemed more at home in films set earlier, including his Andrew Jackson in "THE PRESIDENT'S LADY" and "THE BUCCANEER". His historical characters seemed to be both of the time of the film and timeless in a way that many British actors would also come off as contemporaneously British even when playing ancient Romans.
 
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"Ben Hur", Denmark

At the same time, Heston was able to consistently do something very few actors of the past could, and no contemporary actors can: play believably noble, even saintly characters. His Moses has long been the stuff of jokes (of which Heston himself was reportedly guilty: after a dinner at his home he said he was going out to the swimming pool to part the waters), but a close study of the film does not reveal any campiness in his performance. Instead, there is a dignity, authority, and sincerity of belief that many evangelical preachers would envy. And this quality also informs his Ben-Hur, Cid, and even his Chinese Gordon in "KHARTOUM". To me, the only other actor who came close to this was Michael Rennie in "THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL", "THE ROBE", and "DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS".

As we well know, such films and such roles went out of fashion in the mid-Sixties, partially rendered ludicrous by the Italian "sword 'n' sandalers" of the early Sixties, and Heston increasingly became the victim of an image he couldn't overcome. He seemed out-of-place, even slumming in most of the films he made in his films of the Seventies and Eighties, especially contemporary ones like "EARTHQUAKE" and "AIRPORT 1975". And he never really showed, or was allowed to show, a humorous side to his screen persona, as John Wayne did as far back as "THE BIG TRAIL" and really played off during the last 15 years of his career. It was really too late for Heston to start sending up his career the way his contemporaries Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster had been doing since they'd become stars.
 
 
"Ben Hur", London, England

The exception to all this is reportedly his favorite of all his films, "WILL PENNY", in which he used his saintly quality in a minimalist way to play a simple, ignorant cowboy in the last days of the West. His scenes with Joan Hackett touchingly convey the awkwardness of a man dealing with what he sees as a good, decent woman when he's used only to dealing with prostitutes.

I only saw Heston in person once, in 1974 when I was working at Universal and he was doing "EARTHQUAKE". One of my jokes about him was that he carried his own key light, and as I saw him come into the commissary, the light happened to be such that it appeared he really did!
 
 
"Ben Hur", Sweden  
"El Cid", Denmark  
"El Cid", France  
"55 Days at Peking"  
"55 Days at Peking", Denmark  
"55 Days at Peking", Stockholm, Sweden
 
"55 Days at Peking", Schauburg, Karlsruhe, Germany  
"The Agony and the Ecstasy", Denmark  
"The Agony and the Ecstasy", France.  
"Khartoum", London, England  
"Earthquake", 3 Falke Bio, Denmark  
 
"Hamlet" Paris, France
 
"Hamlet", Dayton Ohio  
 
 
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Updated 21-01-24