Four Buck Chuck: The Dystopian King of Alternative Futures

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Joe Strummer believed that the future is unwritten. That it was up to each of us to make of it what we will and that the only thing preventing humanity from reaching a golden age of unlimited possibility and potential was our inclination toward self-destruction and inability to overcome our base biological drives. The former frontman of the Clash was a dreamer who dared to believe in hope and had faith in the notion that people, when you get right down to the down to the meat and gristle of it, will always do the right thing and are, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, inherently good.  Which is kind of an odd philosophy to adhere to given that he grew up in the sixties and early seventies, a period defined by political assassination and revolution, the cold war, the Vietnam conflict, the Cuban missile crisis, upheaval in the Middle East and the near constant threat of nuclear annihilation.  Even the most rabidly optimistic vehicles that emerged during that era, the Civil Rights movement, Doctor Who, Star Trek, the youthful super-powered heroes created by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, the hippies, the yippies and the counter culture ensemble and the rapidly evolving punk tsunami that was born in the sweatbox clubs of New York’s Lower East Side were not enough to stem the growth of the time’s aura of pervasive doom. And so  its blackened tentacles slowly, but surely, snaked their way into every avenue, both the fantastic and mundane alike, of life.

While apocalyptic antiutopian Science Fiction was nothing new and can be traced back to the populist beginning of the genre via the novels of HG Wells and Jules Verne, most famously The War of the Worlds, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine, it was during the nineteen sixties that it’s roots firmly buried themselves in the literary, and later cinematic, form.  It was the sixties that saw the emergence of space opera on the word stage, as the global best seller Dune – the story of a bleak far flung future dominated by feudalism and totalitarian rule – led the market and the anti-hero, best characterised by Jim DiGriz, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, became the norm rather than a rarity. The exceptions to the rule, that space was a dangerous and unforgiving place and the future held nothing but limitless misery, took precedence over fables that were filled with dreams of an impossible paradise as genre fiction began to mirror the world in which its creators lived.  And as the literature that formed the backbone of the genre became darker, so did it’s usually lighter hearted, cinematic cousin. Hollywood took the new nihilistic outlook of Science Fiction to heart and found an unlikely champion to spearhead its brief, but incredibly successful, dalliance with the dark side.

By the time he was cast in Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston had already parted the Red Sea, met Jesus, gunned Nazi fighter aircraft out of the sky and driven a chariot faster than any other man alive.  He hadn’t though, until donning George Taylor’s astronaut outfit, had a major box office hit for nearly a decade, but was still seen as a safe pair of hands and a bankable name to headline Franklin Schaffner’s radically different adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel of a post-apocalyptic future ruled by primates. It was the first act in Chuck’s dystopian quartet, and while, half a century after it was first released, it still has an element of shock value, the films major revelations and big reveals have become part of the popular zeitgeist; and there isn’t a geek worth her or his salt out there who can’t quote Chucks dirty paws speech verbatim and who isn’t more than familiar with the Statue of Liberty ending. Seen as a righteous social critique and condemnation of segregation and endorsement of ending the woefully ridiculous policy of mutually assured destruction that the Russian and US governments had become locked into, Planet of the Apes also put the man who would be Taylor back on the map, made him a big money action star and set him on course to become the King of Dystopia. The fact that it drew an audience who didn’t know the difference between Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, and returned nearly seven times its budget at the box office made the silver screen men who pulled the levers behind the Hollywood curtain sit up and take notice. Subscribing to the joint philosophies of striking while the iron was hot and that if something isn’t broken then it doesn’t need fixing, the fiduciary giants who gave the thumbs up to all things film related wanted more ape and Taylor action and so a sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes,  was ordered and rushed into production.

On May 26th 1970, twenty five months after they first ventured through that strange time aberration with George Taylor and his doomed crew, audiences were invited to return to the terrifying monkey dominated future in the company of Brent, the only survivor of a mission sent to discover what happened to Taylor and his shipmates. The emphasis this time around is on Brent ( played by James Franciscus) a medallion ready hirsute man’s man, cut from the same acting cloth as Chuck, and his descent into near madness as he desperately searches for Taylor and is forced to accept the truth of where he really is a full half hour or so before his predecessor did in the first film. Realising that no matter how good Planet of the Apes was, you can’t make the same film twice and expect audiences fall in love with it all over again unless you’re JJ Abrams, writer Paul Dehn and director Ted Post decided to mix things up a little with Beneath the Planet of the Apes and introduced a cult of bomb worshipping mutants to add a little zip, and a whole load of crazy, to the plot.

Which brings us back to Taylor, whose role in the sequel is reduced to an extended, but essential, cameo and whom, Brent and the audience both discover, has become a prisoner of the aforementioned pseudo-technocratic religious maniacs.  Pitting the muties against the monkeys was a clumsy allegory that was supposed to represent the ongoing cold war between the, at the time, two global super-powers and the cult’s glorification of atomic weaponry  bluntly reinforces the notion that the first film hammered home; that nukes are like really, really bad. While the opposing forces duke it out, and having taken care of Brent in a hail of bullets that emphasises just how cheap life has become in the “future”, its left up to Taylor to have the final word, which he does in grand fashion. With his dying breath, King Chuck proves that he’s the most important man on that damn dirty planet and the last hero that any of the mutants and monkeys  will ever know by pushing, while cursing and damning everyone to hell, the big button and putting paid to the whole sorry state of affairs once and for all. Charlton Heston in his final moments as Taylor becomes the man who killed the world.

The downbeat ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes left a slightly sour, depressing taste in the minds of mainstream film fans and word of mouth and reviews ensured that cinema audiences showed their displeasure in the only way they knew how: by staying away. And even though the sequel made far less than the original, the Apes franchise survived for another three years and three more films before the idea of Apetopia was eventually retired. This made absolutely no difference to Chuck’s career though, as he was already dead in the franchise, having blown up, and thus put paid to, the unforgiving and sombre world which he’d ended up in. So it was time for him to move on. And move on he did to even more barbarous, austere and ominous fictional futures.

The first step on the road to those futures was The Omega Man. It was the second time that Hollywood had tried to film Richard Matheson’s stygian novel of survival in a world ravaged by a vampiric plague, I Am Legend and The Omega Man attempted to do what the previous cinematic version, the Vincent Price led The Last Man on Earth, hadn’t – strike it big at the box office.  As Heston was still relatively fresh with an all-ages audience following the success of his simian led features, putting him in the driving seat as the film’s protagonist, Robert Neville, seemed like a no-brainer.  After all, he’d hit a home run and charged in at the last moment to save the game with both of the monkey movies he’d been in,  so logic dictated that he must have been doing something right.  And logic, as it ever is, was absolutely right when it came to Chuck assuming the mantle of Robert Neville.  While it didn’t make as much money as the producers, director and studio would have liked or wanted, The Omega Man is a harsh and uncompromising film and its plot was led by the prevailing climate in which it was made. Neville, a former US Army scientist and the “saviour” of humanity, developed the serum to the war-born, and created, virus which has destroyed mankind and carries the only sample of it in his blood. Hounded throughout the film by the Family, a cult like group of plague victims who have been mutated by the pathogen that he holds the answer to, Neville rediscovers hope when he stumbles across a group of young people who he, with a little help, can immunise and send out into the world to start all over again.

But this is a Chuck film and his take on Science Fiction offers little reward for the characters he plays, and as such for Neville to give humanity another chance, he has to die. Which he does, giving his blood to his “disciples” so that they might live. The last half of The Omega Man is steeped in religious symbolism, with Neville, and thus Chuck, becoming a Christ like figure as he leads a group of young people to salvation despite the protestations and best attempts of the masses, portrayed in this instance, by The Family. Neville even dies in a Jesus Christ pose in the fountain in front his house, having been run through by a spear, and the final shot of the films “crucified” martyr leaves the audience in no doubt that when push came to shove, even though he was part of the establishment that did its best to kill every man and woman on the planet, in the end he wasn’t such a bad chap after all. In fact, you might even call him a “hero”. It’s also sort of fitting that, having previously met Christ earlier in his career when he played Ben Hur, Chuck finally got to “be” the messiah. Or at least a not so heavily disguised, drowned in metaphor version of him anyway.  And even though this was the second time in a Science Fiction row that Chuck “died”, when he ventures into the great beyond in The Omega Man, he saves the world instead of blowing it up.

Most thespians would have been more than happy to venture into humanity’s desolate history yet to come three times. Chuck wasn’t most people though and in 1973 he teamed up with the producer of The Omega Man, Walter Seltzer, again to paint one last cinematic portrait of a ruined society in which humanity had fallen victim to corporate greed and hubris. Soylent Green, based on a short story by Harry Harrison, is scarily prophetic and bears an uncannily resemblance to the scientifically predicted not so distant future that humanity is actually heading for. Set in an ecologically damaged and vastly over-populated 2022, Chuck plays an NYPD detective who while investigating a homicide stumbles across a terrible truth that’s been hidden behind conspiracy and high power double dealing. That the Soylent Corporation have been processing the dead and repurposing them as food, the Soylent Green of the title, to feed an ever expanding population that has increased far beyond the world’s natural ability to provide for it.

Rather than subject it’s anti-hero, Detective Frank Thorn, to the sort of digitized, mass info-dump that’s increasingly commonplace in the twenty first century, Soylent Green, sticking rigidly to the grand seventies conspiracy thriller rulebook, gradually drip feeds it’s central player clues that hint at, and point toward, the inevitable conclusion. That Soylent Green is people. And director Richard Fleischer and one man Sci-Fi wrecking ball Chuck needle the film’s message home through an ensemble of set pieces. The rivalry that’s set up between Chuck Connors and Chuck Heston, allows the two Chucks in their finest fashionable threads and nattiest of caps to battle it out throughout the film in their good versus evil guises, culminating in a bitter sweet, and almost ambiguous victory for Good Chuck. The brutal riot scenes and the procession of characters who are willing to do whatever it takes to taste the easy life and rise above the masses, all serve to point out that this future, this dystopian hell, is one of our own making. It’s also Chuck’s finest on screen Sci-Fi performance, as the journey Frank undertakes as he transforms from someone who readily subscribes to the me first philosophy that dominates the lives of the populace he’s sworn to protect into an individual whose job becomes the centre of his existence and for whom the truth is more important than his own existence is made all too believable by the daily misery and sorrow, interspersed with a few moments of true joy, that he faces on a daily basis.  And it’s this film, this role and the dying moments of the story in which Frank’s and the Soylent Corporations intertwined fates remain uncertain as the credits begin to roll, that inexorably crowns Charlton ‘Chuck’ Heston as the King of Dystopia.

In the decades that followed the release of Soylent Green, Chuck’s box office power would slowly begin to dissipate with Earthquake being his last marquee headlining draw to make any sort of serious financial and critical impact. And while he continued to make films, his name moved further and further down the cast list and Charlton Heston slipped into the comfortable and unassuming role of Hollywood royalty.  No matter what else he did in later life though, his shifting political allegiance, a waning career dominated by bad choices – ultimately only saved by True Lies and In the Mouth of Madness – and a bizarre devotion to the ridiculous psycho-babble of the NRA, thanks to his spirted and memorable performances in the quartet of films that helped to define the cinematic vision of unfolding dystopian societies for decades to come, Charlton Heston will always be the King of Uncertain Futures. The king is dead, long live the king. Tim Cundle

‘Four Buck Chuck’ is both a reference to the popular wine of choice for mainstream America, Charles Shaw or as it’s commonly known as ‘Two Buck Chuck’ (because sometimes you just need a damn drink to dull your senses and  forget all about the craziness of modern world) and the fact that when I was growing up, you could rent ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’, ‘The Omega Man’ and ‘Soylent Green’ from the video shop for a pound each.  Four films for four bucks equals ‘Four Buck Chuck’.

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