Charlton Heston raised the tablets containing the Ten Commandments high over his head decades before he did the same thing with a flintlock rifle and, to their credit, most of the journalists who wrote his obituaries managed to cover both of those symbolic gestures. Heston lived a giant, sprawling life, before being defeated by Alzheimer's disease. His life was, in many ways, just as big as the epic movies that made him a superstar in his era. However, I am still curious about one thing, after reading dozens of mainstream news accounts about his life. Heston played his share of saints and holy men, but was he a believer? The mainstream obits are silent on this (please correct me if I missed something).
The Los Angeles Times, in a weblog posting, did dig back into the religion-beat files to find this interesting quotation from a long-ago interview by religion writer Dan Thrapp:
It is interesting to note that once Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and talks to God there is never contentment for him again. That is the way it is with us. Once we talk to God, once we get his commission to us for our lives we cannot be again content. We are happier. We are busier. But we are not content because then we have a mission -- a commission, rather."
-- Charlton Heston, on how his life was influenced by playing Moses in "The Ten Commandments."
Back into our day and age, here is a typical summary of some of the key facts, drawn from the Los Angeles Times:
With a booming baritone voice, the tall, ruggedly handsome actor delivered his signature role as the prophet Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 Biblical extravaganza "The Ten Commandments," raising a rod over his head as God miraculously parts the Red Sea. Heston won the Academy Award for best actor in another religious blockbuster in 1959's "Ben-Hur," racing four white horses at top speed in one of the cinema's legendary action sequences: the 15-minute chariot race in which his character, a proud and noble Jew, competes against his childhood Roman friend.
Heston stunned the entertainment world in August 2002 when he made a poignant and moving videotaped address announcing his illness.
Late in life, Heston's stature as a political firebrand overshadowed his acting. He became demonized by gun-control advocates and liberal Hollywood when he became president of the National Rifle Assn. in 1998. Heston answered his critics in a now-famous pose that mimicked Moses' parting of the Red Sea. But instead of a rod, Heston raised a flintlock over his head and challenged his detractors to pry the rifle "from my cold, dead hands."
Personally, I thought some of the most insightful passages had to do with Heston, the man. You can tell a lot about a person by key details in their private life. Heston wrestled with some demons -- such as alcohol -- but he seemed to have lived a very conventional life, in many ways. Once again, I wondered if there were details about his faith that were missing.
This is from the LA Times, again:
John Charles Carter was born Oct. 4, 1923, in Evanston, Ill. His father, Russell Whitford Carter, moved the family to St. Helen, Mich., where Heston lived an almost idyllic boyhood, hunting and fishing. He entered Northwestern University's School of Speech in 1941 on a scholarship from the drama club. While there, he fell in love with a young speech student named Lydia Clarke. They were married March 14, 1944, after he had enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Their union was one of the most durable in Hollywood, lasting 64 years in a town known for its highly publicized divorces, romances and remarriages.
Several papers attempted to deal with the range of Heston's political life, noting that -- like Ronald Reagan -- was active as a Democrat and as a labor-union leader. Heston always insisted that he didn't leave the Democratic Party -- it left him.
The evidence is that there was more to that parting than the right to bear arms.
The New York Times did an especially good job of blending this part of his life into his controversial years as one of the few cultural conservatives who lived and worked, to some degree, in Hollywood after the 1960s.
Mr. Heston was always able to channel some energies into the public arena. He was an active supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calling him "a 20th-century Moses for his people," and participated in the historic march on Washington in 1963.
He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1966 to 1971, following in the footsteps of his friend and role model Ronald Reagan. A registered Democrat for many years, he was nevertheless selective in the candidates he chose to support and often campaigned for conservatives. ... He became a Republican after Democrats in the Senate blocked the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork, a conservative, to the Supreme Court in 1987. Mr. Heston had supported the nomination and was critical of the Reagan White House for misreading the depth of the liberal opposition.
Mr. Heston frequently spoke out against what he saw as evidence of the decline and debasement of American culture. In 1992, appalled by the lyrics on "Cop Killer," a recording by the rap artist Ice T, he blasted the album at a Time Warner stockholders meeting and was a force in having it withdrawn from the marketplace.
Actually, that scene was much more dramatic than this simple description lets on. Attending the meeting as a stockholder, Heston stood on the floor and read -- his voice was a weapon, in and of itself -- the verbatim lyrics of the title track and the even more graphic lyrics of a song about a man raping the young nieces of Al and Tipper Gore (who were known as Hollywood critics at that time). Journalists could not quote him, of course, because the lyrics were too obscene, a reality that Heston found ironic.
There's much more to say, about Michael Moore and many other topics. But the definitive Heston document is probably his famous speech at Harvard University (full text here), in which he preached -- there is no other word that will do -- a sermon against political correctness and in favor of free speech, including free speech for his critics.
But all of this left me wondering about the man's actual beliefs on religious and moral issues. With that voice of his, he made a number of tapes and videos linked to biblical subjects. In one series -- Charlton Heston Presents The Bible -- he said simply: "If you seek the Lord, you will find Him."
It would have been nice if journalists had asked a few questions about how that search turned out. Did Moses ever find his own promised land?