Moses Proclaims : Charlton Heston reviews of his own work and that of his colleagues : IN THE ARENA: An Autobiography, By Charlton Heston (Simon & Schuster: $27.50; 592 pp.)

Charles Champlin was a longtime film critic for The Times

As constant readers of Letters to the Editors columns know, Charlton Heston is a prolific, decisive, elegant and often impassioned writer. From the start of his half-century-plus career--he first appeared before the camera in an amateur production of "Peer Gynt" in 1942 as he was starting at Northwestern University--he has also faithfully kept a daily diary. The diaries yielded two earlier books, "The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976" and "Beijing Diary: 1990," a lively account of his trip to China to direct "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" with a Chinese cast, in Chinese.

Now Heston has written his autobiography, a massive (nearly 600 pages) work that will probably prove as fascinating to his admirers as to those who, on political grounds, aren't. The voice is unmistakably Heston's own--clear, supremely confident, eloquent, candid, but also funny and sometimes even risque, which is somehow startling given the majestic men he has so often played, from Moses forward. No ghostly hand obtrudes here, and the suspicion is that even an editor might well have paused before tampering with the text as received.

The diaries obviously helped to thwart that "terrible liar," as Hume Cronyn called fallible memory, and to lend a you-are-there immediacy to the recollections. The combination of Heston's long and varied experience and his considerable literary skill makes "In the Arena" the best Hollywood autobiography since Frank Capra's "The Name Above the Title" as a kind of three-part study: the man, a changing industry and the process (acting, of course, in Heston's case, but also producing, directing and the ancillary skills).

Heston, who will be 72 on Wednesday and continues to work, has, in his phrase, been "riding the tiger" of great fame and success since even before his singular triumph as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" in 1956. That role remains his trademark, however. He jokes about it, and once at a dinner party I heard him promise to part the waters of the swimming pool on demand. But in the book he makes clear that playing the role on location in the Sinai became a moving religious experience for him.

He is a severe if forgiving critic of his own work, and doesn't hesitate to call "Call of the Wild," an international co-production so bad that Paramount refused to release it, "the worst film of my career." The sharpest disappointment has been the "Antony and Cleopatra" he adapted, directed and starred in and is proud of; alas, he writes, "the film I cared about more than any I've ever made was a failure."

The candor entitles him to boast about the characters he feels he got right. High marks to Moses and Ben Hur, Chinese Gordon (in "Khartoum") and other historical figures; affection as well as pride for his tramp cowboy in Tom Gries' "Will Penny" and his aging quarterback in "Number One," which Gries also directed and which earned Heston a couple of cracked ribs in a too-real tackle. (The ribs were an expense; the nose he broke playing high school football acquired an aristocratic hillock that has been worth millions to him.)

"In the Arena" is rich with glimpses, equally candid both pro and con, about his co-workers. There's a dismaying glimpse of Ava Gardner on "55 Days to Peking," drinking heavily, useless for work after lunch and making life hell for director Nick Ray, who had a crippling heart attack before the picture was finished. Jason Robards, also still drinking in those days, catches some of the blame for the failure of "Antony and Cleopatra." "I have never seen a good actor so bad in a good part as Jason was as Brutus . . . terrible is the only word."

More numerous by far are the admiring and indeed loving portraits of colleagues and friends: William Wyler ("the best director of performance in film"), Orson Welles ("the most talented man I ever knew"), and many of his fellow actors, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud above all. (He told Olivier he had learned to ignore the bad reviews; Olivier said you have to learn to ignore the good ones, too, but it's harder.)

The portraiture also embraces Alvina Krause, his university acting coach, his longtime producer Walter Seltzer and the father and son team of stuntmen, Yakima and Joe Canutt. Yakima made a chariot driver out of him for "Ben Hur."

In so extensive a text, there is an inevitable quantity of "And then I acted in/directed/produced/suffered through . . . " But almost always Heston finds a point to make about the process, the perils and the serendipities of the craft. And threading through it all is a Heston family chronicle. The book is a love letter to his wife, Lydia, whom he met when both were aspiring actors at Northwestern. They've now been married more than 50 years.

Over the years Heston has, of course, grown ever more conspicuous politically. He says he rejected offers years ago to run for the Senate, as a Democrat, and reminds the reader he stood with Martin Luther King at the "I have a dream" civil rights march in Washington. He has moved across the aisle, emphatically, and in the last election campaigned for 24 GOP candidates in 14 states (he notes with pride that 19 were elected).

He is not reticent about outlining his views, and the closing pages of "In the Arena" are a fervent statement of his credo and his angers. Heston seems to be saying, "Let the hackles rise as they will," and they are likely to.

He is against multiculturalism (unfair to children who will need all the English they can get), affirmative action ("a stain on the American soul"), political correctness ("which has done so much to destroy civil discourse") and big government ("too many federal departments with too many people exercising too much authority over individual American citizens"). He defends guns and the Second Amendment, though he is silent on automatic weapons.

Heston acknowledges the excessive violence in films and on television, but worries more about the effects of the violence in the video games children play, and he levies a different indictment against the visual media. "We are guilty of dismantling the American ethic"--most particularly, he says, by discovering only villains where once the movies, and the society, found their heroes.

Much of Heston's stance seems at bottom a kind of fierce nostalgia for a better past. He quotes Richard Dreyfuss ("American society has lost belief in itself") and Senate chaplain Richard Halvorsen ("In our narcissistic, hedonistic, masochistic, valueless preoccupation, we are becoming a people dominated by lust, avarice and greed").

But for all that riles him (and obviously not him alone), Heston appears to cling to an embattled optimism that all is not yet lost. He has gathered quotations from writers as dispersed in time as Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner and Martin Luther King and shuffled them together into one affecting statement, to demonstrate that the philosophical underpinnings of the American experience are unchanging.

Earlier in the book, Heston, quoting an unremembered source, writes that "In the beginning an actor impresses us with his looks, later his voice enchants us. Over the years his performances enthrall us, but in the end, it is simply what he is ."

Just so.

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