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Charlton Heston And The Making of Omega Man 

Gerry Fitzpatrick provides an review of the life, film role and social significance of Charlton Heston following his death on 5th April.

18 May 2008

Charlton Heston whose death was announced last month always wanted to play the hero and to many he was. Especially as Ben-Hur where he seemed to be at home as the wronged man who returns to make peace with honour via the sport of kings (racing horses). He gave a great performance in that picture because he saw it as a means to justify himself and his rage - the source of which, like his later alcoholism, were never really established during his lifetime. The roles he chose were always about the use of power. Moses, Mark Antony, El Cid, General Gordon and his Michelangelo - he depicts them all in their attempts to put nobility in the place of power. 

But later in his career he ceased to be attracted to those roles and began to favour a new role for himself – the role of Omega Man – the last man, who would fight the last battle as Taylor, the time shifted astronaut, as cornel  Robert Neville the Saviour-Survivor, left to fight the future mutant masses. He also was able to show us what the future would be like if we didn’t take his view of the world seriously. In Soylent Green he plays Robert Thorn the worn out detective - an American Winston Smith, who follows a trail of clues that shows the noble body (personified by Edward G. Robinson) being processed as food by a Stalinist nightmare state for starving peasants. 

Outside of the movies Heston would later try to convert his fictional selves into a form of campaigning politics supporting various rightwing causes.   In the early 1960s he had been a supporter of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Heston of course was not the first liberal or leftist to become right wing ideologue. But his own conversion is instructive, as his new group of ex-liberals not only imagined a future nightmare America – it was they who brought it into being and forced Americans to live in it.  – And for all of us to live with its consequences. 

That nightmare was Richards Nixon’s and Ronald Regan’s America and the thirty year reign of neo-conservative governments that followed.  But that nightmare began as a very different nightmare. And it was a recurring nightmare that many rich and powerful people have had and it was this: what would happen if the underclass became the ruling class? And it most often appears when a ruling class imagine their rule is under serious threat. 

Swift imagined it about the rebellious Irish peasantry where Gulliver encounters them as the ‘yahoos’ in Gulliver’s Travels. In The Time Machine (1895) H.G Wells imagines a future where gentle peaceful beings living above ground are preyed upon by subterranean, Neanderthal, flesh eating monsters.   The ascendancy or the bourgeois fear of being subjected to proletarian or plebeian control appears at moments of particular historical crisis. In Swift’s case it was his fear that the underclass of Irish peasants would move from being simply rebellious, to perceiving they had rights. 

In H. G. Wells’ case it was the social Darwinist fear that the proletariat would control the world. They were fantasies that used fictional form to express serious concerns. That combination marked them as ‘modern’ or rather it marked them as modern because they feared what an uncontrollable modernity might bring. 

Not far behind these fantasies was their persistent companion narratives; the old medieval robber baron and his supporters returning from the dead to claim back his land and bleed the bourgeois family dry (Dracula) and a society were no social order is possible because of a plague that infects the body politic, turning people into uncontrollable beasts or zombies (a ruling class fear since the early middle ages).

The End of 1960s Liberalism 

During the time of the early Civil Rights upheavals in the 1960s, this nightmare vision had remained dormant as long as the powerful - including the liberals - thought that if legal reforms were adopted they could remain in political charge of the situation. That situation they reasoned was problematic but still manageable. After 1967 that changed, and the affluent and powerful abandoned the notion that they were free individuals, who could bestow freedom on others and began to see themselves as a class that needed to fight back both politically and culturally. 

1968, as people will remind you, was a year of revolution; it has also been dubbed The Year of The Police.  It was also an election year, when a significant number of American liberals began their own political and cultural awakening and dramatically moved to the right. Charlton Heston was one of those liberals.  This was significant because it was this group who helped put Richard Nixon into the White House. The ex-liberals were right - to move right - because Spiro Agnew (Nixon’s chief election strategist) had told them so. Spiro had worked hard on the campaign trail and had pulled out all the stops in telling them of the other ‘war’ they needed to fight at home. Spiro specialised in the sort of narrative in which State forces were repeatedly glorified and were then contrasted with the appearance of the new radical life forms that were then attacking America…

"Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers,
lions and tigers alike -- I would swap
the whole damn zoo for the kind of
young Americans I saw in Vietnam."

What Spiro wanted to know was, were you on the side of these dangerous animals – the  ‘Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, lions and tigers’ or  on Nixon’s side - the side of human civilisation - in uniform? The zoological analogy had become standard in referring to the rebellious poor after the Los Angles Police Chief two years before had referred to the rioters as “monkeys in a zoo”.  By May 1968 and the upheavals that followed the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, many more rich people and influential liberals began to see themselves as fighting in the war at home; especially after the support that the Democratic Mayor of Chicago, Mayor Daley, received after he called on the police to shoot-to-kill people who were causing damage to property. What would happen – the ex-liberals imagined, if these people won? ‘What would our lives be worth?’, ‘I must be ready to fight back’, they reasoned.

Special Effects and Ideas Scene By Scene 

That dread was indicative of a particular form of white paranoid vigilantism which Heston gave expression to. A focus on firearms was to be expected. 

In the opening scene of Omega Man (1971) we see Heston, as the last vigilante, use one of those firearms and fire up at an abandoned office block where he has just seen a mere shadow pass behind a curtain. The sound of the gun Heston fires is of particular importance. It is the noise of a heavy machine gun recorded and amplified in enclosed firing rage. It is terrifying. And so is Heston, as he blasts away at the shadow with crystal clear certainty, not thinking much about what he is firing at or the ammunition he’s wasting, as this particular activity seems not to be subject to post apocalyptic shortages. It is the only thing he can do because what’s left of humanity are the plague-ridden-undead after his blood….

Now contrast this with how things actually happened three summers before in the cities of Newark and Detroit. A few things were similar; the authorities – the armed police and State Troopers – were not going to run out of ammunition any time soon. They too had been firing randomly at buildings after seeing shadows they naturally assumed were hostile. What snipers were there had all but been seen off earlier. Now the real battle commenced with the other ‘shadows’ - the unarmed public in the streets and in their homes and apartment blocks. 700 injured and 67 killed in Newark, 43 people died and 1100 were injured in Detroit, the majority from wounds inflicted by state forces and federal troops. The battle of Newark had begun on the 12th July 1967 and had just barely finished when the city of Detroit erupted on the 23rd of July 

The Media War and Hysteria

First it would be wrong to say that all reports were distortions.  On the 15th of July a reporter for the local Newark Evening News who travelled with a police ‘intelligence unit’ reported on their armoury which one of the officers casually referred to, “the rifles for snipers and the shotguns for mobs”. In next paragraph they arrive at body of man who had just been shot in the back by another police unit who explained that, “he wouldn’t stop running…so we opened fire” (Newark Evening News 15 July 1967 p1). 

However, the impact of how the story was covered nationally particularly by television was devastating. Some film was broadcast by the networks of the events in Detroit but it was the Newark coverage that caused the most uproar as it had been reported on by several outside broadcast units of WCBS television New York.  Shortly after which WCBS were accused of encouraging Newark to rebel. They then took unprecedented step of devoting a special programme of self praise and to proving that they had been on the side of the state forces (see separate review). The most dramatic scenes shown were of the police firing from cars and of a white woman screaming while watching someone receive first aid for a gunshot wound:

 They also devoted an amount of time to proving that the rumour that a child had been shot by state forces was ‘untrue.’ There was one problem with that. A number of children had been shot and killed out of sheer brutality by state forces (again see separate review). The media actively try to deflect any accusations of radical bias or sympathy with the black poor of Newark – they were simply ‘reporting’. The report special then went on to implicate radicals in inciting the violence and bragged openly that they had this story first. The result of which was that the programme legitimated fear and induced a large amount of white hysteria. The images and shadows from the reports entered the public’s imagination and fuelled the revenge fantasy: the slaves were infected with the virus of revolution and must be culled.

After the true extent of the state operations in Newark and Detroit became known, subsequent reports by other networks did show some sympathy but this was mostly for the children ‘caught up in the middle’.  This theme of white society assuming paternal responsibly for ‘lost’ black children  is also a theme present in Omega Man were Heston tries to save a black teenager from his mother who catches the plague and is no longer responsible for her actions. Heston military man becomes Christ like - giving of his blood to save the black teenager and is later crucified by the plague ridden mob for his pains. But instead of forgiveness he yells abuse as he dies at their hands.

Damn It All To Hell!

It is hell, or an imagined future hell, that these films are reporting from. In Planet of the Apes, the ape planet is always thought of as ‘Earth’ because it has humans in it. We are supposed to think that it can’t be Earth because the humans are not in charge. It is an updated version of a traditional ruler’s fantasy. The Ape Planet is really Ireland ruled by the yahoos, it is H.G. Welles’s Earth - 2 million years hence dominated by the morlocks.  On Planet ape, the apes are not just apes they are armed, hate filled monsters, who have significantly overthrown their masters – the docile humans. In 19th Century Britain this ape like figure appeared regularly in popular culture of the time in cartoons, in melodramas, in comedy routines. He was the embodiment of the nightmare of the future misrule of the Irish yahoo - better known by his given name of the Fenian:

or he was simply a apelike monster:

He next reappears during the First World War as a murderous gorilla:

The threatening misrule of the monster ape has become part of modern folklore.  Never shown as succeeding in his previous incarnations his conspiracies and his threat were preserved to incite confrontation. On the ape planet, the apes are human enslavers and have won. That’s what gave this version of the fantasy a new frightening edge. If his misrule did come to pass - America or rather armed white Anglo-Saxon America would be in hell. This was part of the paranoid imaginary of the new America right and of actor-politicians who helped promote its politics. Charlton Heston was the missing link between Ronald Regan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


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