Gunning for Chuck
Charlton Heston’s defence of gun ownership was far more honourable than the cynical fear-mongering of his elitist, liberal critics.
For many of us, our last memories of Charlton Heston are from Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. Moore staged a bullying interview with the man who played Moses, and who later in life became known as a spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA). In the interview scene, Moore disgracefully pursues the near-octogenarian with a picture of a child killed by a gun. Heston, who had generously invited Moore into his home, only dimly comprehended the real purpose of Moore, who sanctimoniously shouted ‘shame’ at the elderly actor as if pursuing a Nazi war criminal.
The scene captured the demise of that powerful, red-blooded generation of Americans who dominated the postwar era. A generation ago, Heston would have sent Moore on his way with a powerful, Moses-like restatement of the aims of the Second Amendment (which grants Americans the right to keep and bear arms), delivered in his characteristic sonorous baritone. In 2002, he could only sadly shake his head and leave the scene after realising that he had been duped.
How did Heston become a political whipping boy for the liberal intelligentsia? The man who marched with Martin Luther King in 1963, a Democrat right into the 1980s, ended up as figurehead of the NRA, the most hated symbol of the right for many Democrats today. Yet Heston was right when he declared: ‘My politics haven’t changed – it is the Democratic Party that changed.’
Heston was born John Charles Carter on 4 October 1923 in Evanston, Illinois. He grew up in rural Michigan, enjoying an almost idyllic boyhood, hunting and fishing. He married Lydia Clarke on 14 March 1944, after enlisting in the US Army Air Forces. Their union was one of the most durable in Hollywood, lasting 64 years in a town known for highly publicised divorces, romances and remarriages.
Having pursued drama before enlisting, Heston and his wife sought acting careers after the war, having to supplement their incomes by posing in art classes. Heston’s chiseled good looks and imposing six-foot three-inch frame attracted the attention of veteran film producer Hal Wallis, who had seen Heston in Shakespearean roles on Broadway. In 1952, Heston starred in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. Four years later, he appeared as Moses in The Ten Commandments, the role that defined his career. Heston gained critical kudos in Orson Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958), and then with Gregory Peck in the western The Big Country (1958), before taking the role for which he won an Oscar, Ben-Hur (1959).
One of the biggest actors in Hollywood by 1960, Heston symbolised the Americanisation of the world, lending historical characters his muscular, steely-eyed, courageous and, above all, American features. Who can picture Ben-Hur, Moses, El Cid or John the Baptist without Heston’s granite-hewn visage? Heston also helped put down the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and portrayed General Charles Gordon as a popular and heroic failure in Khartoum. He became a symbol of America’s role in the world, an idealised representation of the battle of the just against the unjust.
A political animal, Heston also came to personify the muscular Cold War liberal politics of the era. Before many in Hollywood had the courage to support civil rights, Heston became a prominent backer of Martin Luther King, calling him a twentieth-century Moses for his people. A Democrat until the 1980s, Heston vocally supported democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956, John F Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and failed Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
That year brought a change in his film roles, if not yet an alleged change in his political stance. In 1968, Heston starred in both Planet of the Apes and in what he remembered as his best acting role, the western Will Penny. In line with many Democrats of the time, Heston opposed the war in Vietnam but he travelled there to visit the American troops. He appeared with several ‘cowboy’ actors in support of Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968 (later he said this Act was ‘misguided’).
This may have been Heston’s more conservative side; radical Democrats and supporters of the Black Panther Party opposed these gun controls, arguing that the measure was directed against African-Americans. The Panthers had first come to prominence by appearing armed with rifles at the California State Capitol in May 1967 to protest against a law criminalising carrying rifles in public. Then governor Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in short order.
In 1972, along with many former Democrats disgusted by the new direction taken by the Democratic Party of George McGovern, Heston supported Republican Richard Nixon. From then, Heston, according to author Emilie Raymond, associated himself with the neoconservative movement, made up of former Democrats like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz who felt that their party had abandoned its values. By 1982, Heston had altered his position on gun controls, campaigning with fellow actor Roy Rogers against Proposition 15, a Californian initiative that called for freezing the number of handguns and registering them (1).
However, Heston was hardly politically prominent at that stage. He starred in a number of less-than-critically-acclaimed films in the 1970s, including an inferior sequel to Planet of the Apes and cult futuristic films like Omega Man and Soylent Green. At a Seattle book store, a young woman came up to him and said ‘I didn’t buy your book but would you sign this for me?’ She held out a copy of book entitled Fifty Worst Films open at Heston’s lamentable Airport ’75. Heston smiled and signed it. He joined the seemingly unending line of Hollywood has-beens apparently desperate for ironic and often self-mocking cameo roles. He guest-starred twice on Saturday Night Live and appeared in Wayne’s World 2. His acting nadir, however, must be The Colbys – the ill-starred spin-off from Dynasty.
Heston hardly feared controversy, publicly sparring with fellow Fifties screen idol Gregory Peck over the nomination of conservative Supreme Court nominee, Thomas Bork, in 1987. But it was only through his association with the NRA that he became the liberal Antichrist. In 1992, for example, he stood up at a shareholders’ meeting and read out the whole of Ice T’s infamous Cop Killer as a protest against violent lyrics, an incident reported but not considered that controversial. Then, in 1998, he assumed the NRA presidency. At the NRA’s convention that year, Heston attacked then president Bill Clinton: ‘Mr Clinton, sir, America didn’t trust you with our healthcare system. America didn’t trust you with gays in the military. America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.’ Suddenly, he was deluged by the media: ‘The day I became president [of the NRA], I don’t think I held the gavel 10 minutes’, he boasted. ‘I did 29 media interviews that day.’ (2)
Heston will be remembered above all for the moment he held up a musket, as he once held up a staff as Moses, and paraphrased for the grateful crowd of NRA supporters one of its bumper stickers: ‘From my cold, dead hands.’ Though there was much adulation within the NRA, there was little outside of the convention. ‘Send Charlton Heston back to the Planet of the Apes‘, read one banner outside of an NRA convention. ‘Hey Charlie, we loved you in the Nine Commandments (thou shalt not kill excluded)’, read another. Heston believed in the causes he sponsored and had hit upon the one that outraged liberals more than any other.
Heston’s politics, as Raymond points out, did not so much shift as stay still at a time when liberal politics shifted ground. Like fellow members of the NRA, he belonged to a generation of Cold War liberals bemused by the changes happening around them. He identified, as he recounted in one of his books, published in 2000, with that generation of Americans who ‘prefer the America they built – the America where you could pray without feeling naive, love without being kinky, sing without profanity, be white without feeling guilty, own a gun without shame, and raise your hand to say so without apology. They long for leaders who will muster some guts, stand on principle, and lead them to victory in this cultural conflict. They are tired of being under siege for their principles and values that have been declared good, right, and just for more than two centuries.’
This is, of course, a sentimental and illusory paean to an imaginary lost world, a bemused shake of the head at the many changes that affected the nation since his coming of age. But Heston’s generation remembered George Orwell’s 1984 and feared the imposition of too many state controls. These Cold War liberals revered the US Constitution and held aloft heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln without feeling the need to be ironic. Heston, though he embodied many of the faults of his generation and held many reactionary points of view, at least never bowed to the misanthropic, anti-democratic forces who wish to restrict the rights of ordinary Americans. Though the tactics of the NRA and Heston himself may have been wrong, he at least resisted the moral authoritarian hue and cry of gun controls.
Heston’s hands may now be cold and dead, and he may have cut a forlorn figure in the past few years, but he remains a giant compared with Lilliputians like Moore and his elitist, fear-mongering gun-control buddies.
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
Sandy Starr was not impressed by Michael Moore’s interview with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Allison Felus did not like Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes. Kevin Yuill asked ‘who’s afraid of “gun culture”‘ and argued that no law can stop a school shooting spree. Or read more at spiked issues Guns and shooting and Celebrity.
(1) Emilie Raymond, From My Cold Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics, University Press of Kentucky, 2006
(2) Time, Special Report, 6 July 1998 (Vol. 151 No. 26)
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