Charlton Heston would’ve celebrated his 95th birthday on October 4, 2018. Born in 1923, the actor became a household name with leading roles in action adventures and biblical epics. But his credits extended past those two well-worn genres. In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at 12 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
After serving in the United States Army Air Force during WWII, Heston made his professional movie acting debut with the film noir “Dark City” (1950). His big breakthrough came just two years later with Cecil B. DeMille‘s big top soap opera “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), in which he played the circus manager. Though an audience favorite in its time, the film often ranks among the all-time worst Oscar winners for Best Picture.
Heston later reunited with DeMille to play the Old Testament prophet Moses in “The Ten Commandments” (1956), which brought him a Golden Globe nomination. A holy hit at the box office, the role undoubtedly inspired William Wyler to cast him as a Jewish prince during the time of Christ in “Ben-Hur” (1959), which brought Heston a Best Actor Oscar. The film gobbled up 11 total trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Considering its spectacular chariot race, it’s little wonder “Ben-Hur” led to Heston becoming an action star, with starring roles in films such as “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Soylent Green” (1973), and “Earthquake” (1974). He would, however, stretch his acting muscles from time to time, as witnessed by Orson Welles‘ “Touch of Evil” (1958) and Kenneth Branagh‘s “Hamlet” (1996).
Heston received the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1978, the Screen Actors Guild life achievement prize in 1972, and, appropriately enough, the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.
As his acting career began to wind down, Heston became better known for his politics than his filmography. A longtime Democrat and civil rights activist, he later became a Republican and head of the National Rifle Association. An awkward interview with Michael Moore for the gun-control documentary “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) was one of his final onscreen appearances, and an unfortunate one at that.
Take a tour through our photo gallery of Heston’s 12 greatest films, including a few Oscar-caliber performances that were sadly overlooked.
12. EARTHQUAKE (1974)
Disaster movies plagued the box office throughout the 1970s, thrilling audiences and stupefying critics with their mix of big spectacle and all-star casts. With “Earthquake,” the title pretty much tells you all you need to know, as several A-listers — including Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Green, Genevieve Bujold, and Richard Roundtree — struggle to survive when a massive seismic tremor rocks Los Angeles.
11. MIDWAY (1976)
Heston teams up with Henry Fonda for this stirring dramatization of the Battle of Midway, a major turning point in the fight for the Pacific during WWII. The film is at its best when focusing on its impressive battle sequences, aided by some stock war footage and stirring sound work (it was released in the now obsolete Sensurround). It falters, however, in its love story between Ensign Garth (Edward Albert), son of Navy Captain Matt Garth (Heston), and Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), a Japanese girl living in Hawaii.
10. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)
A huge success in its time, this big top melodrama from Cecil B. DeMille now regularly ranks among the worst Best Picture winners of all time. But by God, it’s still hokey, soapy fun, with Heston as the circus manager, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as the dueling trapeze artists, and James Stewart as the clown with a dark secret. It all ends with a spectacular train crash.
9. THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
William Wyler’s Technicolor epic stars Gregory Peck as a New England sea captain who travels west to marry a rancher’s daughter (Carroll Baker), and soon becomes embroiled in a land feud between two families. Heston costars as Steve Leech, the feisty, fiercely loyal foreman to the Terrill family estate. Burl Ives won Best Supporting Actor for playing Rufus Hannassey, patriarch to the impoverished rival clan.
8. HAMLET (1996)
Shakespeare’s classic play about a melancholy Bard has been translated to the screen countless times, but never as faithfully as this 70mm, four hour version with Kenneth Branagh pulling off triple-duty as writer, director, and star. Several celebs stop by to make cameo appearances, including Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams. But the standout is Heston as the Player King (a role that usually get truncated in shorter versions), head of a visiting actors troupe who put on a show that causes King Claudius (Derek Jacobi) to squirm in his seat.
7. SOYLENT GREEN (1973)
“Soylent Green is people!,” bellows Heston in one of the all-time greatest movie lines. (The AFI ranked it #77 on its list of the 100 greatest quotes.) This adaptation of Harry Harrison’s sci-fi classic imagines a future where overpopulation and greenhouse gases have turned Manhattan into a dystopia. Heston is an NYPD detective investigating the murder of a CEO bigwig who soon discovers a horrific secret about a governmental form of food.
6. EL CID (1961)
Admittedly, it’s a tad bizarre to see Heston wearing dark makeup to play fabled Spanish warrior Rodrigo Diaz (a.k.a El Cid). Yet that does little to diminish Anthony Mann’s entertaining and intelligent saga, which follows El Cid as he overcomes family and political turmoil to lead the Christian nation in their fight against the Moors. Largely dismissed in its time, the film has since gained notoriety among cineastes, including Martin Scorsese, who assisted in its restoration and re-release in 1993.
5. MAJOR DUNDEE (1965)
Following a troubled production, Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” was sliced and diced on its way to movie screens, and the results were disastrous. Thankfully, a restored 2005 director’s cut helps clear up some plot holes and deepens character motivations. Set in Mexico in 1864, the film stars Heston as a determined Union officer hunting down a murderous gang of Apaches.
4. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
Of all the biblical epics Cecil B. DeMille brought to the screen, none is more entertaining than this overblown, extravagant, and hokey retelling of the life of Moses (Heston), his second adaptation of this story (the first was a silent version in 1923). It follows Moses from the time he was discovered as an abandoned infant in the bullrushes to his struggles to save the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter and Edward G. Robinson ham it up as Rameses, Nefretiri and Dathan, respectively.
3. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Heston kicked off the lucrative “Planet of the Apes” franchise with this stellar sci-fi adventure. He plays an astronaut in the near-future who crash-lands on a distant orb where primates have enslaved humans. But he soon discovers — in one of the most shocking twists in movie history — that this rock is actually our own! Director Franklin J. Schaffner manages to keep things both thrilling and silly, with some much-needed tongue-in-cheek humor.
2. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)
As was the case in “El Cid,” “Touch of Evil” finds Heston donning dark makeup to play someone of a different race, this time a Mexican-born police detective investigating a tangled web of kidnapping, murder and corruption. All dubiousness in casting aside, this is a film noir masterpiece filled with striking visuals and bravura performances. To describe the labyrinthine plot would prove an exercise in futility. Let’s just sum it up by saying Heston goes toe-to-toe with a dishonest cop (writer-director Orson Welles) in a sleazy border town, with his wife (Janet Leigh) entrapped by a perverted biker gang.
1. BEN-HUR (1959)
Heston won Best Actor for William Wyler’s rousing historical epic. Set during the time of Christ, it centers on how Jewish prince Ben-Hur (Heston) is sold into slavery by his Roman friend, Messala (Stephan Boyd), only to later return seeking revenge. Though bogged down by some slow, painful dialogue passages, it soars when giving into spectacle, especially in the famous chariot race (directed by Andrew Marton and staged by stuntman Yakima Canutt).