A Trilogy of Sorts: The SF Films of Charlton Heston


Unfashionable though it may be, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the movies of Charlton Heston, and in particular a trio of SF films he starring in during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Although probably most closely associated with the ‘epic’ genre (he starred in, amongst others, Ben Hur, El Cid and The Ten Commandments) I’ve always felt that Heston’s SF credentials were secured by the loose ‘trilogy’ that comprises Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Of course, the films in question are only a trilogy in the loosest possible sense, but each of them shares a downbeat sensibility and each proved to be rather grounbreaking in their own way.

Planet of the Apes is easily the most well known of the films, spawning four sequels (Heston appeared briefly in the first of these, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), both live action and animated television versions, two remakes/reboots (Heston again appearing in Tim Burton’s 2001 version) a few novelizations and numerous comic book adaptations.

The original, based upon Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet and with a screenplay by Rod ‘Twilight Zone’ Serling, is probably the best. Even now, the first glimpse of gorillas on horseback, happily engaged in human-hunting, still delivers a cinematic hammer-blow, and Heston’s performance – as the misanthropic astronaut Taylor – is a powerful and well nuanced one and is the glue that holds the film together. Enough has been written about Planet of the Apes to preclude any real in depth discussion in this short piece but suffice it to say that the final, shocking and haunting, shot of the Statue of Liberty, jutting from a desolate shoreline and Heston’s last words (God damn you all to hell) are among some of the most memorable in science fiction cinema.

1971’s The Omega Man saw Charlton Heston back in fine genre form and in many ways the film is an echo of Planet of the Apes, with Heston once again as the only sane and rational man in a world gone mad.

Based upon Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel I Am Legend (1954) the film takes quite a few liberties with its source material – so much so that Matheson more or less considered it as having little or nothing to do with his novel – but is nonetheless something of a minor classic, mixing a healthy dose of blaxsploitation with science fiction and post apocalyptic horror.

When germ warfare wipes out most of the world’s population, only one man, Dr Richard Neville (Heston in another Tayloresque role but with sightly less misanthropy this time) survives. Or rather, he is the only one to survive unscathed, thanks to a timely – and plot friendly – dose of ultra-rate vaccine. Other survivors have mutated into nocturnal albino maniacs, determined to wipe away the stain of technology that has brought the world to its knees, and as Neville is the last example of said stain, naturally their efforts focus on him.

The Family, led by former newscaster Jonathan Matthias (played with steely intensity by the wonderful Anthony Zerbe) are miles removed from Matheson’s original vampires, but nevertheless provide entertaining and funky foes to Heston’s beleaguered Neville and the scenes of an eerily deserted Los Angeles still have a tremendous impact even in these CGI-can-do-anything days.

As with Planet of the Apes, there is an essential gloom at the heart and climax of the film, even if Heston’s final, Christ-like pose is a little heavy-handed with the symbolism. But, then again, much science fiction cinema of the 1970’s delighted in the downbeat endings (think of Logan’s Run, Silent Running or Westworld) and it wasn’t until 1977 and Star Wars that optimistic SF became fashionable again.

The final film of the Heston SF trilogy, Soylent Green, is probably the bleakest of the all. Based upon Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent Green deals with the issue of over-population and its consequences for the future.

And what a future it is – 21st century New York as envisioned from the early 1970’s – hot, crowded, corrupt and half-starved, where the millions of Have-Nots are contrasted with the very few Haves and both sexual and moral indenture has become a way of everyday survival.
As with both Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, vast liberties are taken with the original text, but once again, what emerges is (arguably) more suited to the screen than the page. Clothed in the guise of a detective story, where detective Heston investigates the murder of wealthy Have Joseph Cotton only to discover an horrific secret at the heart of the Soylent Corporation, Soylent Green gave Charlton Heston his best final line since Planet of the Apes (even if said line is often misquoted) and also features a touching poignant performance from Edward G. Robinson in his final role.

Although never considered as a trilogy (other than by me in a rather informal way) these films represent Charlton Heston’s rare foray into the speculative realm (although he would later appear in a couple of mediocre horror films like 1980’s The Awakening) and each one of them is, at the very least, an intelligent example of Hollywood SF in the days before the big effects laden blockbuster took the heart from the genre and a time when the hero didn’t always survive intact in mind, soul or body.

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