Leaving aside his obnoxious politics, let's ask the obvious question: Was Charlton Heston a good actor? He had star quality, no doubt about that: from The Ten Commandments through, say, Planet of the Apes, he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But it's also unquestionable that he was in a lot of kitsch (with The Ten Commandments as Exhibit A), and he was badly miscast in a lot of other movies. He played the martyred British imperialist Charles "Chinese" Gordon in the leaden epic Khartoum (which also features a hammy Laurence Olivier playing the Mahdi, an early version of Osama Bin Laden, in blackface), and he's all wrong for the part. Heston's too hale and brawny and not nearly crazy enough for Gordon, who in real life was a twitching, celibate, religious fanatic, and not particularly physically imposing—Alec Guinness or even Ralph Richardson (who plays prime minister Gladstone in the film) would have been much better casting. (The real story of the Mahdi and Gordon in the Sudan is not only fascinating, but eerily resonant with our current difficulties. You can read about them both in Alan Moorehead's great work of popular history, The White Nile. And the real Gordon was one of the Victorian heroes eviscerated in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.)

But I am bloggishly digressing. What I really want to say is that I think Heston could be good, with the right part and the right material, and that often he was best when he played against type, or maybe a better way to put it would be to say that he was best when he played someone close to his detractors' stereotype of him—namely, when he played a rather hollow and slightly fearful blowhard instead of a straight-up hero. My more charitable way of putting it would be to say he was best when he played forceful, ambitious men who were thwarted in some way, and the best example of one of those performances is Sam Peckinpah's near-masterpiece, Major Dundee, from 1965.

I'll confess to a fair amount of nostalgia for this film, which I seem to hold in higher esteem than almost anyone I know. It was the first adult movie I ever saw with my own money, all by myself, at the age of 10, the same summer that I saw Lord Jim and discovered Joseph Conrad. And the soundtrack to Dundee was the first LP I ever bought, for 99 cents at Woolworth's in Big Rapids, Michigan. I still have it, and I still know all the words to the dopey theme song (sung by Mitch Miller and His Gang!). But I've seen it since, many times—most recently, just last night, on the restored DVD version, minus Mitch Miller—and I still think it's a good film, if not the great one it could have been. And much of the worth of the film is in Heston's performance, playing a U. S. Cavalry major at the end of the Civil War, frustrated and angry that he's been assigned to supervise a prison in New Mexico instead of fighting in the war. The film is badly chopped up, even in the restored version—it was taken away from Peckinpah in post-production—but even so, Heston's performance is more controlled and less bombastic than many of his other performances, and when he is bombastic, it fits the character he's playing. And if you're looking for contemporary resonance, he plays an overconfident and not-too-bright military leader who embarks on a pointless mission just to prove his own worth to his superiors, and to himself.

He's also quite good in Planet of the Apes, which thanks to Rod Serling's subtly satirical script, Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score, and the surprisingly effective ape make-up is still one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. I also think that it would be a lesser film without Charlton Heston: as in Major Dundee, he plays a frustrated, angry man trapped in an impossible situation he doesn't really understand and can't control, and his teeth-grinding rage throughout the film, not to mention his explosions of violence, go a long way toward evoking the same reaction in the audience, which in turn goes a long way toward selling the implausible, but wonderfully creepy premise of the movie. (Another nostalgic digression: I was lucky enough to see Planet of the Apes, at the age of 12, as a brand-new film, without having read a single review—it just looked cool in the TV ads—and so unlike subsequent generations, I didn't already know how it ended. The last minute or so was one of the great movie moments of my life, second only to my first viewing of Kubrick's 2001 the following year; it took the top of my head off. Since then, of course, even people who have never seen it know what happens. Hell, even the box of my DVD copy gives away the ending.)  

Heston gave other good performances, too, in smaller films that aren't as famous as the big, kitschy ones he was famous for. Will Penny, which Heston said was the favorite of his films, is a lovely, minor-key Western, where he plays a good-hearted, but emotionally thwarted cowhand who falls for a lovely widow (played by the late, great Joan Hackett). Again, he's playing against type, and there's something poignant in watching such a big, forceful man bank his emotions and struggle to express himself. He also made a wonderfully world-weary and cynical Cardinal Richelieu in the Richard Lester versions of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and he was equally world-weary and thwarted in Soylent Green, which has a kitschier reputation than it deserves.

And even if you don't buy any of the above—and a number of friends of mine, whose judgment I trust implicitly, find him unwatchable, even in Major Dundee or Planet of the Apes—you still have to reckon with the fact that, like him or not, Charlton Heston appeared in at least three, and possibly four (if you count the end of Soylent Green), of the most memorable movie moments of all time: there's the end of Planet of the Apes, as I've already said, there's the parting of the Red Sea in that kitschfest, The Ten Commandments, and there's, of course, the chariot race in Ben-Hur. You could argue, I suppose, that none of these moments owe their power to Heston—it's the sheer surprise of the appearance of a Certain Famous Statue in Planet of the Apes (see, I'm still not going to give it away, even though you already know what I'm talking about), and the parting of the Red Sea is all down to Cecil B. DeMille and his special effects guys. And the power of the chariot race in Ben-Hur is all down to the famous stuntman Yakima Canutt, who planned and shot the whole sequence (and famously said to Heston, "Just stay in the chariot, Chuck. I guarantee you're going to win the race."). But I'll just say that it can't be a complete coincidence that Heston was associated with so many memorable scenes, that it's difficult to imagine any of these moments without him, and that like him or not, once you saw him flexing that big jaw of his on the big screen, you never forgot him.