Of Presidents and Buccaneers

October 22, 2019 | By

There are those who can’t take Charlton Heston the actor seriously – his tall, steely, clenched-jaw delivery of ornate or terse dialogue, and a sense of self that’s too serious – but long before the caricatures (many quite accurate) and his personal shift in politics near the end of his life, Heston was one of Hollywood’s most durable leading men, navigating through period dramas, noir, westerns, war films, and then becoming an unlikely hero of dystopian worlds and disaster epics during the 1970s.

The Heston I first saw was The Omega Man (1971), saving us from vampire-zombies; Soylent Green (1973), infiltrating corruption at the elite level in another dystopian world; Airport 1975 (1974), saving Karen Black and passengers from disaster; The Three Musketeers (1973), playing a corrupt Cardinal with special aplomb; Earthquake (1974), saving ordinary citizens after a massive quake not orchestrated by Irwin Allen; and the list goes on.

Among his last roles was the Player King in the overly star-studded Hamlet (1996), appearing in another Shakespeare play for the big screen, and doing it beautifully. As a director, Heston only tackled three films – Antony and Cleopatra (1972), in which he’s excellent; the secret gold mine thriller Mother Lode (1982), an unofficial CanCon classique that’s a lot of fun and features taut second unit stuntwork; and A Man for All Seasons (1988).

The three could symbolize Heston’s durability as a character actor, playing classics of stage & literature, pulp thrillers, historical dramas, and biographies, of which The President’s Lady (1953) may be among his lesser-known.

For critics, it’s tough to see through the theatrical, stiff screen persona, and that awful image of him grasping a rifle at an NRA gathering.

Sometimes he played roles a bit too seriously – as entertaining as the killer ant flick The Naked Jungle (1954) is, his Christopher Leiningen is a sexist, pompous colonialist ass – but his body of work is more than Ben-Hur (1959) and The Ten Commandments (1956), of which the latter was a perennial Easter special on TV.

(In the 1980s, you could rely on yearly airings of Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind; I think CBS had a license for a few decades during that era.)

Commandments was a career high – the film sits nestled between period populist feel-good pop religion and effects-draped kitsch – and it was a memorable collaboration with epic and hit filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, another director whose own politics weren’t especially liberal.

DeMille was anti-Red, and it was John Ford who put the former in his place when he attempted to push through a loyalty oath at a historic DGA meeting in 1950. It’s another case in which there’s the politics and comportment which aren’t flattering to film fans, and the artistic work that still stands on its own as masterful.

Commandments has aged, but damn, it’s entertaining, and DeMille knew how to tell a story with energy, and deliver the thrills with an assured use of visuals. The two versions of The Buccaneer prove his skills, especially the first which, certainly in the battle scenes, feels very modern; never cutty or ADD, but a textbook example of How to Build an Exciting Montage.

The story is simple: real pirate Jean Lafitte helps real future President Andrew Jackson fight and defeat the British from claiming New Orleans, plus there are elaborate backstories of love, revenge, guilt, and redemption.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Lady is the headliner here, featuring Jackson (Heston) as the emerging President, and in a unique career step, The Buccaneer (1958) had Heston reprising the role in a battle skipped over in the more romantic Lady.

The differing acting style and material with which to work and shape Jackson is also indicative of Heston’s typecasting; he laughs, romances, rides, races, and bleeds nobility in Lady, whereas he’s aged, battle-scarred, and a no-nonsense leader in Buccaneer in spite of being a supporting player.

The 1958 version, directed by Anthony Quinn (!), different in unique ways from the 1938 version which DeMille directed himself, and I’ve added reviews of both since they tie-in to the most detailed (and heavily romanticized) version of Andrew Jackson, with Susan Hayward playing his soul mate Rachel.

The two Buccaneers were released by Olive, and although extras-free, they’re worthy films to snap up, if not sample for cinematic portraits of pre-Presidential Jackson.

Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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