There’s something about this movie to which I am inexorably drawn. I can’t explain it, I can’t understand it. I can only tell you what it is. That thing is…
Charlton. Frigging. Heston.
See, here’s the weird thing about the Hest–I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed being around him. I’m pretty sure we’d be so diametrically opposed about everything that we’d have no other choice but to lock horns in eternal combat. And I’m pretty sure he’d have felt the same way about me. It’s OK, I’m secure enough to realize that.
So why is it that I loooooooooooooove…as in looooooooooooooove love love love…so many of his movies? I mean, I assume the same sort of disdainful emotional reciprocity would occur between me and John Wayne, but the sole movie of The Duke’s that I love (providing I ignore the sexual politics) is the exception rather than the rule. But Hest? Among his filmography are epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, and these movies are unquestionably deserving classics. However, I seem to like most of what the Hest has done, though my favorite movies of his are a trio of dystopian future hellscapes– Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green (spoiler alert: it’s people), and of course, The Omega Man.
(As an aside, if you do nothing else, watch the above link of The Omega Man. You have the Hest, a poufy shirt, a green velvet jacket, an enormous link of sausages, a mutant with a white afro and some scotch and swingin’ music to wash it all down. Deeee-lish.)
OK, OK, to be fair, the Hest was more complex than I had originally given him credit for. Did you know he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in 1963? I just learned that he opposed the HUAC activites, calling them an affront to democracy and claiming that a lot of decent people had the rug pulled out from under them when Stalin let the world peek behind the Iron Curtain and all pretense that his regime was socially balanced, dissipated. Heston’s later years were so completely colored by his NRA President-era “From my cold, dead hands” moment that it’s become a little difficult to view him as nuanced. But he was, apparently. Good for him.
The Omega Man was based on the book I Am Legend, just like the Will Smith movie (because the Will Smith movie was another adaptation, see?). Of course there are differences. In the book, there are references to the effect of war on the world, but the plague that infects humanity is spread by a rise in the mosquito population. And it turns people into vampires. In The Omega Man, human destruction is unleashed thanks to biological warfare between China and the USSR, and it turns people into light-fearing albino mutants with a knack for zealotry and a desire to destroy all technology and Robert Neville (Heston). Neville is seemingly the only human survivor trolling the streets of LA, and is certainly the only one doing so in a Cadillac convertible and a safari jacket.
The Hest. No mere sports jacket can contain him.
Later, he turns up sporting a neckerchief. It’s pretty fab.
He looks awfully upbeat for the last man on earth who, for two solitary years, has had to fight off a horde of becloaked mutants referred to as “The Family”, who want nothing more than to light him on fire. Led by Matthias (the woefully underappreciated Anthony Zerbe), the mutants view their collective plight with a religiosity that may seem outrageous at first, as talk about the “Great Cleansing” and the evils of technology that wrought global destruction comes out of their starch-white, boil-laden faces…but think about it for a few minutes and it–frighteningly–starts to make sense.
And therein lies the heart of the Hest’s dystopic trifecta and the thing which, for me, creates their relentless appeal. They all carry a common thread, which is that humanity is pretty thoroughly engaged in the process of killing itself. In Planet of the Apes we can’t stop fighting and goddamn us all to hell, we blow ourselves up. In Soylent Green we overpopulate to the point that we trigger wave after wave of ecological meltdown and can’t feed ourselves unless it’s on our own corpses. In The Omega Man, humankind falls victim to biological warfare and Matthias and Co.’s accompanying evangelical belief that Heston is a human DOS shell to the mutants’ shiny new 2.0 rung in the evolutionary ladder.
Without launching into a full plot description, bear in mind that:
- The Hest is not alone, and he finds an infected but not-fully-mutated enclave of non-albino people.
- The Hest is alone in that he holds the key to defeating the mutation-causing bioagent.
- The Hest and Rosalind Cash engage in what is not the first interracial kiss filmed for the big screen, but it’s one of the most socially progressive ones. (This was 1971, people. While interracial marriage was granted legal status in all US states in 1967, according to US Census figures from 1970, interracial couples only made up about 2% of the population. For a lot of folks this was, to put it mildly, shocking.)
Oh, Moses, Moses!
To tell any more of the story would be to give the plot away, and it unfolds pretty nicely in terms of pacing and structure so I don’t want to ruin that for you. Look at it this way: killer costuming, a swanky soundtrack, great casting, and you don’t get any glaring “Huh? How’d that happen?” moments that can bedevil a good postapocalyptic story (though there are always a few, nit-pickers). The Walking Dead fans, think of the controversy that followed when Shane turned into a zombie…
…and you’ll get what I mean.
Highly, highly recommended. Is this the greatest movie ever made? No, but it may be the Hest’s greatest wardrobe ever filmed. It’s got plenty of cheese, but it’s not so wildly over-the-top that you can’t find anything that’s thought-provoking or relevant. This is the Hest’s film to power through from start to finish and he eats every scene he’s in (which is mostly all of them) like they’re his lunch. I think as films go, it’s better than I Am Legend because he’s fighting a more interesting enemy, though I Am Legend‘s mutants certainly make you produce more adrenaline. I have yet to see the earliest adaptation of the book I Am Legend. It was made in 1964 and called The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. I can’t speak to my opinions of it (yet, though it’s in my Netflix queue) but I will say this…Vincent Price? Is no Charlton Heston.
Watch this movie if:
You’re looking for a fun, retro-funky-sci-fi-horror way to fill an afternoon.
You’re itching to see a grown man in a neckerchief.
You’re a proud fan of Anthony Zerbe.
You’re in preparations for the zombie apocalypse and want some pointers on performance and personal style.
You’re locked in debate about whether or not Will Smith is this generation’s answer to Charleton Heston. They’re both handsome, take manly action roles, are glib…
Don’t watch this movie if:
You support the plight of the evangelical albino technophobe mutant.
You think Moses would never kiss a black lady.
You think hooded monk’s robes are fashion-forward and should be adopted for casual wear.
You love “Huh? How’d that happen?” moments and think leaps of logic should be present in all movies.
You…wait…Soylent Green is WHAT??!?!??
Rating: One million and seven out of five stars.