One of the many awful jokes that go around the Anglophone world is: “When is tummy trouble first mentioned in the Bible?” Answer: “Moses took two tablets and went into the wilderness.” But it’s unlikely that anybody thought of that, watching Charleston Heston, who died on Sunday at 84, magnificently playing Moses in Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments. The 1956 movie gave a face to Yahweh’s big prophet in the same manner that Raja Ravi Varma’s painted Hindu deities made India ‘see’ its pantheon in calendar art, mytho-movies and tele-serials.
Film-maker Michael Moore, in his 2003 pro-gun control documentary, Bowling for Columbine, saw Heston as a red-neck conservative supporting the American National Rifles Association, allegedly a modern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. However, Heston had supported the American Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, joining marches and doing everything he ought to support the cause for civil liberties for Afro-Americans.
There are other splendid bits of Americana to remember Heston by, especially Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil, a classic portrayal of a Mexican law officer fighting drugs and violence. But chances are that Indians most admired this tall, good-looking ‘man’s man’ for two other films besides The Ten Commandments. Ben Hur (1958) is a must-see as much for Heston’s Jewish hero as for the chance to spot the (mythical?) red Volkswagen accidentally visible in the famous chariot race. And Planet of the Apes (1968), for Heston’s wonderfully growly role as a human among simians.
This amazing sci-fi film was an adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel about four astronauts who ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in their spaceship, the Icarus. They wake up when it lands in 3978 C.E. on a planet — that turns out to be Earth — ruled by apes who use humans as ‘lab monkeys’.
Heston’s line, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape” has folklorised into the urban Indian woman’s semi-permanent thought blurb as she scoots her way through most Indian streets. Ah, Mr Heston, you died not knowing the gritty expressive fury you bequeathed to the ladies of a land far, far away.