Sunday, 6 April 2008

A Legend Remembered

I love classic movies. They make life tough for modern efforts, which is exactly the way it should be. Too often studios feed us swill, thinking we won't notice - and I'm sure some don't - but the genuine filmgoers among us know what it takes for a film to pass muster. We've seen how they should be done, in colour or in black-and-white.

Recently, Paul Schofield and Richard Widmark, two of our great screen actors, passed away. I was going to write a column about Widmark, one of my favourite "forgotten" stars, but today, sadly, another legendary actor has died. And this one has left me reeling.


My dad told me stories for years about the old 50's cinemas - a world before multiplexes and credit cards and digital projectors. He said you used to get two movies (an 'A' and a 'B'), a newsreel, a weekly serial, and a few trailers all for the price of one ticket. Ladies used to sell ice cream and popcorn in the aisles, and during the epic films, there was always an intermission when you could stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or stock up on more drinks for the second half. OK, and the roof of the theatre occasionally leaked. It actually snowed inside during one screening of Alpine WW2 actioner Where Eagles Dare.

But one of these epics was the film that kick-started his love affair with cinema and music, when he was ten years old. His mother (my grandma) had a blistering argument with a woman wearing "a bloody great big hat" sat in the row in front. But it was the film itself that frightened, excited, awed him that night. Ben-Hur is the quintessential biblical epic. Its scale is unsurpassed even today because, far more than backdrops and extras, the story of Judah Ben-Hur and his quest for revenge against his old Roman friend Messala is set against the great turning point in history. The life of Jesus Christ. That my dad is a staunch atheist says everything - Ben-Hur is still his favourite film, for its passionate music, its emotional power and its eye-popping grandeur.

AND for Charlton Heston.

Muscular, charismatic, and with a strong voice, Heston commanded the screen so completely in all his films that he practically carved his own legend.

Early starring roles in excellent films like The Naked Jungle, The Greatest Show on Earth and The Big Country promised much, and he delivered big time as Moses in De Mille's The Ten Commandments. Heck, he even voiced God for the burning bush! His towering portrayal of Ben-Hur earned him an Oscar, and two years later he played perhaps the greatest knight in movie history as Spanish legend El Cid, opposite Sophia Loren. That happens to be my dad's second favourite film.

More complex roles followed in the 60's, mostly historical figures such as Gordon of Khartoum, a unique medieval War Lord, and Michaelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy. In the seventies he gave legitimacy to the oft-maligned but always entertaining disaster movie cycle, featuring in Earthquake, Airport '75, and Gray Lady Down. He also played a variety of western roles throughout his career, the most famous being Will Penny and Peckinpah's Major Dundee.

He was and will always be bigger-than-life. Who else could have played so many huge, pivotal characters and remained undaunted? He was an icon, a historical presence, the embodiment of moral virtue on screen. Tonight, my dad and I are going to pick out one of his movies to watch.

He died aged 84. The world suddenly seems that much less epic.

Farewell, Mr. Heston, and thank you.

No comments: