Charlton Heston: 'Villain to Many,' or NRA's Moses?

Even in sympathetic appreciations of Charlton Heston's life and career, his conservative activism for gun rights was often treated as a sour note. Richard Corliss in Time felt compelled to write "He became a villain to many in his later life, when he took up the strident support of conservative causes, most notably that of the National Rifle Association."

But in Monday's Washington Post, film critic Stephen Hunter compared Heston to one of his most famous roles, Moses:  

Later in his life, he took that stance into politics, becoming president of the National Rifle Association just when anti-gun attitudes were reaching their peak. Pilloried and parodied, lampooned and bullied, he never relented, he never backed down, and in time it came to seem less an old star's trick of vanity than an act of political heroism. He endured, like Moses. He aged, like Moses. And the stone tablet he carried had only one commandment: Thou shalt be armed. It can even be said that if the Supreme Court in June finds a meaning in the Second Amendment consistent with NRA policy, that he will have died just short of the Promised Land -- like Moses.

Corliss, by contrast, suggested Heston's embarrassing trip over to the "rear guard" (after supporting civil rights and Bobby Kennedy and opposing Richard Nixon and Vietnam) was all about seeking adulation:

But as time marches on in political events, at an ever more agitated pace, the advance guard often becomes the rear guard, and then disburses, grumbling. So Heston supported restrictions on abortion; he campaigned for Reagan (possible bumper sticker: "God Likes the Gipper") and both Bushes; he inadvisedly posed for a photo with a white supremacist leader. He spoke at any conservative function that would have him, and what group wouldn't? At these appearances he showed a thespic vitality absent from his diminishing turns before the movie and TV cameras. The actor's stentorian talents may have been looking for the kind of forum they had lately been denied in films. If screenwriters would no longer write heroic lines for his movie characters, he'd do it himself. 

Hunter recalled meeting Heston at an NRA event, and suggested Heston took on that controversial role simply because he believed in it:

Why then, it must be asked, did he take the leadership of the NRA, never the most popular of lobbying outfits in Washington? One cynical explanation is that the old star was looking for an audience that would treat him as he had been treated in the late '50s and early '60s, almost as a god.

But the abuse he took! The anger he generated. The fury he absorbed from a Hollywood and a critical community that were turning ever more liberal in the wake of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Good Lord, he didn't need that at all.

The only answer can be: He believed. His had to have been a ramrod sense of the Second Amendment and he never varied from it. Hate his politics or love them, you have to say: There was a man.

When I met him at that NRA event (I am a member; he had read some of my novels), I was disappointed. He was -- no other word will do -- old. He had an old man's stooped posture and an extremely tentative way of speaking, as if clarity were an issue. His features, once so mythic, now seemed fragile, draped with a loose parchment of delicate, spotted skin. He didn't walk so much as shuffle, as if he were already wearing those hospital paper shoes; it was as if he had a walker with an oxygen tank attached.

We exchanged cordialities and banalities (can't remember a word of it), and then it was time for him to address the crowd. He shuffled slowly into the big room, and the spotlight came on him, and it was as if with each step he tossed off a decade. His shuffle became a stride and then almost a strut. His posture went from the question mark of age to the exclamation point of youth. His lungs filled, revealing the full breadth of his wide shoulders. His neck turned iron, his chin came aloft, his vision sharpened, and the years just fell away like leaves. When he spoke he boomed in Moses' triumphant baritones, delivering the Tablets to the believers.

I thought: Good for Chuck. Magnificent to the end.

AP's Calvin Woodward also used the NRA's Moses line, with a more typical media lilt:

To gun control activists, Heston stepped forward as a reassuring face for a movement they consider extremist, aggressive and sophisticated.

As Moses in the movies, he clutched the Ten Commandments to summon his followers. On the tablet of his political life, he carved the Second Amendment.

Heston was not just the public face of the gun-rights movement but a good deal of the fire in its belly during a transformational time in the decades-old debate.

He lived to see Democrats running away from a cause they once embraced, scared off by the likelihood that they lost the 2000 presidential election in part because of their gun-control advocacy.

For a conservative champion like Heston, that was pretty close to the Promised Land.

Washington Post Associated Press Time Entertainment Media Stephen Hunter Richard Corliss
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