Yes, we're late to the wake, but it's important to note that the giant chest of American post-war cinema is no more. Cue former reasoner and current abs-ophile Tim Cavanaugh:
I'd like to stand up for the trilogy of dystopian science fiction of which Planet of the Apes is merely the first part. The New York Times doesn't even mention Soylent Green or The Omega Man in its obit, and our own coverage is pretty dismissive of both. (Planet of the Apes is now canonical enough that highbrows belittle it at their own risk.) I'd argue that both those movies are touched by greatness and live on for, if nothing else, the insights they provide into the culture of their time.
The Omega Man—which opens with Heston tooling around an empty, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the city where the world was meant to end, god damn it!) and, in a brilliant touch, watching, over and over again, the only movie still playing, Woodstock—is as full an examination of the relationship between the establishment and the counterculture as any film of its time. It's an olive branch from Heston to the hippies, with the hero repulsed, fascinated and ultimately in love with the groovy kids he recognizes as the only future for mankind. Who else but Heston could have been at the same time hip enough and square enough to share a hot makeout scene with the late Rosalind Cash, and have that actually mean something? That Anthony Zerbe's black-robed zombie inquisitioner puts a face of intolerance and anti-reason onto the rhetoric of progress ("Put away the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds") just shows that even when Heston put a hand out to the flower children, he did so recognizing that they shared a common enemy in unreason.
Then there's Soylent Green, which has suffered mightily from partial recognition. Everybody knows the film's hokey last-act revelation, but hardly anybody appreciates the sense of exhaustion, world-weariness and dismay at modernity that endures long after the movie's warning about overpopulation has failed to meet expectations. Heston, who could always play a great ennui-filled cynic, is crucial to making that work. In addition to a chilling opening-credit sequence, the film offers Heston and Edward G. Robinson in an emotional death scene that manages to be bizarre, disturbing, sarcastic and moving all at once.
Whole thing here.
Aye, but what of his politics? (Which, during my half-asleep consumption of NPR this morning I heard described along the lines of "Charlton Heston was a great actor, but later in life grew more and more conservative.")
Well, luckily for you we have a reason interview with Moses himself from April 1987. A taste:
reason: [Jefferson's] philosophy that "that government is best which governs least"—are you sympathetic with that?
Heston: Oh, I'll sign that any day. There's no question that one of the most pernicious effects of modern society is the seeming impossibility of reversing the tendency of government to get bigger. It has under every administration, I guess, in the history of the Republic—certainly in this century. And despite all the protestations and brave assertions that if I'm elected we will cut big government, which has been included in the platforms of most men who ran for the presidency in the last 30 or 40 years, it doesn't stop.
reason: Even Ronald Reagan doesn't seem to have made much headway.
Heston: No. No one has had an appreciable effect, even to slow it a little bit. It just goes on growing. And it is terribly wasteful. It's not just the money it costs. It's the wasted manpower, and it renders governnment clumsy and unresponsive. […]
reason: [Martin Luther] King has been deified by progressives as well as the federal government, with the holiday, while on the right, people like Jesse Helms seem to think that he was a Communist dupe or something.
Heston: I question that. He was not a saint. He was a man, even like Moses was a man. He was a charismatic and effective leader who recognized the importance and the capacity for nonviolence to succeed. Even men who knew him then, like Jesse Jackson, have not recognized them.
reason: Are you a disciple of nonviolence?
Heston: No. […]
reason: The public perception of you politically is that you are…
Heston: A registered Fascist.
reason: Are you comfortable with the label "conservative"?
Heston: Yes. Particularly in both its general political meaning and the literal meaning, "to save."
reason: Although there are some things that aren't worth preserving—segregation laws, things like that.
Heston: Yes, indeed.