When only a few months old, Fraser Heston joined his famous father Charlton on the big screen, appearing as “Baby Moses” in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic colour production of The Ten Commandments. Fraser grew up to become a filmmaker himself, eventually directing his father in a number of roles including Long John Silver in 1990’s Treasure Island.
With the new release of The Ten Commandments on Blu-ray – a plague-filled film that makes a perfect quarantine-era watch, particularly around Passover time – we had the chance to speak to Heston about his famous dad, the complications of his father’s legacy, and how the two managed to live not only in the same film but in the same industry.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
Your most famous film portrayal is one you were far too young to remember shooting. How has your reaction to The Ten Commandments changed as you’ve watched it over the years?
It’s a good question – Ten Commandments is sort of a part of our family DNA. It’s kind of my origin myth, only this one happens to be true! I was probably about five or so when I first saw it. On the one hand, it’s kind of terrifying and awe-inspiring. It’s got all of these amazing effects, some of which are quite frightening – you have the plagues, you have the burning bush and all of this stuff and of course the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Pharaoh’s chariot.
On the other hand, my concept of these Bible stories is so tied in with some of these epic movies, two or three of which my father happened to have made. As an adult, to continue the progression of watching it from time to time. It really strikes me how current it remains, and how exciting and vibrant Ten Commandments still is, even to a modern audience which has been jaded by amazing special effects in modern movies. I think this is the first modern epic, filmed in 1955 – If you start counting forwards from there, you see it affected all epic films that came after it, including Ben Hur and all the way into films like Gladiator and even the Marvel movies. DeMille’s sense of epic spectacle and scale is legendary and there’s a good reason.
You have two central, gigantic figures in the history of cinema, who are both extremely complicated. Both had very positive and very negative effects on the state of Hollywood depending on who you listen to, one of whom is Cecil B. DeMille and one of whom is your father. Can you talk about your own relationship with the myth of your father, about the varying politics of your father, and its misunderstandings on both sides of the spectrum and in turn on his relationship with his director?
I could probably write a book about that, and maybe I should. We are contemplating a documentary about my father’s life, to talk about some of the aspects of his life that people don’t know about. My concept for that film is that there are two poles or two signature moments in his career that people remember, perhaps more than anything else, perhaps more even than the chariot race in Ben Hur. One is the moment where he holds up the staff and parts the Red Sea, and says “behold his mighty hand”. The other is a very similar gesture, where he holds up the Kentucky flintlock musket in from of the assembled multitudes of the National Rifle Association and says “from my cold, dead hands”. It’s kind of the same thing in a way.
It’s certainly the same iconography. And yet, one is seemingly antithetical to the other.
One is basically a mythical figure that he’s playing a part – he was not an old testament prophet, nor was he a chariot driver, nor was he Jewish, nor was he a medieval knight or an astronaut or a cowboy. He just played those things. To answer your question about my relationship with him, both as a mythical figure and later in life as a political figure, I always looked at him as the guy that he actually was, not as the people he played. I was on the set of Ben Hur, and I was on the set of Ten Commandments too, but I was only three months old and I was locked up in a basket most of the time.
He was a very gentle, loving man. He was a great humorist, he loved jokes and would always, in the days before email, mail me cartoons and clippings from the paper. He was a great husband, and he was married to my mother, Lydia, for 65 some odd years, which has got to be some kind of record in Hollywood. He was an avid tennis fan and loved sports. He was very warm and kind-hearted to his friends. He was socially very liberal – he had many gay friends, he had friends from all races and all countries and all walks of life. He was not the sort of stern, autocratic ultra-conservative that people imagine he was. And that’s part of what I think I would talk about if I were making a film about his life as indeed we hope to do.
Did he recognize his own contradictions? Did he see it as at all contradictory, being a man who marched with Martin Luther King and then the same man who held up that flintlock?
It’s a great point, because the short answer is no. And I think he’s right. He was the same guy in 1961 or 62 when he marched and led the Hollywood Arts contingent to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King as he was when he held up that musket. He saw it as a stance for freedom. Now, you may disagree politically with how to go about that, and I won’t judge history. I think it’s a little too soon to make that judgment. But he saw the American constitution as a bulwark of our freedom in America. People in other countries don’t view it as such and of course many people here don’t view it as such either. He thought they were wrong, and he thinks all of the Amendments of the constitution are sacrosanct, including the first and the second and the fourth, all of which have been under various assault from both the right and the left, in the last 30 years.
He was a labour leader, which is not what you think of an arch conservative as doing. He was on the board of the Screen Actors’ Guild for about 10 years and he was President for about nine years. And many of the benefits that working actors enjoy today, including residuals, and their health benefits are the direct result of negotiations made by two arch conservatives, Ronald Reagan and my father. So the clichés don’t operate in quite the way we would expect them to, talking about him personally.
How challenging was it for you to be not necessarily in the shadow, but to suffer from those that wish to simplify his, not only his points of view, but also his performances, to make him simply the guy that would show up in the sword and sandals epics and shout a lot?
Well, I think two things. I think unquestioningly, as a filmmaker, I had tremendous advantages being the son of a famous actor and perhaps more importantly, growing up in the business. I had great advantages not only being the son of a famous actor, but in terms of growing up literally on movie sets from the age of three months old. I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker until I was about 20 or 22, just out of college, and started as a writer and later as a producer and finally as a director.
I worked with my father several times and actually directed him in several films. That was a wonderful experience, to kind of get to know my dad as an adult, as a collaborator, as an artist, working together with him on various projects. I think he enjoyed it a lot too, it’s an experience I hope to have with my son someday – he’s also a filmmaker, writer and producer.
My father was fortunate that he was able to choose roles that reinvented his body as an actor beyond a string of Biblical epics. There are not many actors who can say they have done film noir like Touch of Evil with Orson Welles or Dark City, big westerns directed by people like William Wyler in The Big Country, to science fiction epics, like Planet of the Apes and more poignant ones – perhaps even more poignant today – like Soylent Green, to disaster epics like Earthquake. He was really able to kind of reinvent himself, he never got typecast for more than five or ten films at a time, which was wonderful and why he had such a long career. He went on to make about 80 movies, he worked well into his late 70s and had a sort of remarkable range of performances. I think almost everybody in Hollywood recognized that.
There were certainly people who didn’t like him because of his political stance in the later part of his years, but that’s to be expected. Hollywood is a very liberal place and most people were able to separate their politics from their art, but including some rather radical characters like Vanessa Redgrave. You don’t get much farther left than her, but she was a total professional, worked with him on stage and screen. I worked with her on a cable film, A Man for All Seasons, which we did for Turner. She was impeccably professional, pleasant and interesting to be around, and she really appreciated my father’s talent and enjoyed working with him. So I think that’s what characterizes my experiences with my father’s career.
DeMille’s own politics is equally complicated, his views also in conflict with the view of this “liberal” Hollywood ethos.
I know DeMille had conservative leanings and that’s well known. It’s also well-known that there are themes in Ten Commandments which are I would say cognizant of the cold war that was just really raging into high gear in the mid-50s, and that there are also civil rights themes that he tried to incorporate. Perhaps it doesn’t look so subtle now, but at the time it was important. I think at the time, they were fairly subtle and I think they were appropriate. After all, The Ten Commandments is the greatest story of freedom ever written. It is the proto-story of the march to freedom of the Jewish people. Moses is recognized by several great religions, including Islam, and I believe that C.B. DeMille did his homework on that. I don’t think anybody could possibly find that offensive today, and certainly it wasn’t offensive in 1955.
As far as my own work goes, I try to keep politics out of my work wherever possible. If I’m doing something historical, I try not to use 21st century morays and politics, whether political correctness or simply revisionist history. I try not to let anachronisms creep into my work. I haven’t really had the opportunity to deal with something that’s primarily a political agenda or subject matter. Most of my stories have been either way back in the 1700s like Treasure Island or westerns like The Mountain Men or contemporary thrillers or horror stories like Stephen King’s Needful Things. There was simply no politics involved in any of those. I enjoy watching films whose politics I disagree with if they’re good films. As a viewer I can separate myself, and I don’t have to get on my political high horse with every film I see, I’m perfectly happy if they capture me as a viewer, great, let’s go off and watch these characters be compelling characters and tell compelling stories, that’s what I look for as a filmmaker and as a viewer.
Details about the latest release of DeMille’s classic productions are detailed below:
For sheer pageantry and spectacle, few motion pictures can claim to equal the splendour of renowned director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Arriving in time for Easter gift-giving, the beloved masterpiece will be presented in a new Blu-ray Digibook on March 10, 2020 from Paramount Home Entertainment.
This spectacular release features three Blu-ray DiscsTM and includes not only the fully restored 1956 version of the film, but also DeMille’s original 1923 silent version, as well as a 16-page booklet featuring rare photos and historical facts about both productions. The set also includes an in-depth, 73- minute documentary entitled “The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles,” commentary on the 1956 film by Katherine Orrison, author of “Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments,” newsreel footage of the film’s New York premiere, theatrical trailers, hand-tinted footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea sequence from the 1923 version, a two-colour
Technicolor segment, and photo galleries. DeMille’s last motion picture made Charlton Heston a superstar and remains a cinematic triumph and perennial fan-favourite. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai with one of the biggest sets ever constructed for a motion picture, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS tells the story of the life of Moses (Heston). Once favoured in the Pharaoh’s (Yul Brynner) household, Moses turned his back on a privileged life to lead his people to freedom.