Big guys like this don't fit on movie screens of today


With news of Charlton Heston's death dominating the entertainment headlines Sunday morning, a producer from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. called to ask, "Would you say this is the end of an era?"

The answer is no. Heston, a larger-than-life presence onscreen and off, was a singular figure, and his passing deserved the extended coverage it received. But the movies with which he was most associated during the height of his career in the '50s and '60s -- the widescreen, all-star, big-budget, cast-of-thousands, historical spectacles -- have long ago passed from the screen.

Heston himself, by moving on to such disaster movies as "Earthquake" and "Airport '75" and such sci-fi flicks as "Planet of the Apes" and "Soylent Green," remained active until he voluntarily withdrew from the scene in 2002 because of health problems. But by then, films like "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," as well as "El Cid," "55 Days in Peking" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy," were, for the most part, a thing of the past.

Conceived to compete with the threat of the new medium of TV, the widescreen spectacles were all about promising extra value: Exotic locations, elaborate costumes, international casts. At their best -- when they also boasted literate screenplays like Dalton Trumbo's "Spartacus" and Robert Bolt's "Lawrence of Arabia" -- they were also about the battle of ideas and the clash of civilizations.

Although they were designed to reach the widest possible audiences, they were, in a sense, the specialty films of their era. Typically, they debuted as road-show attractions, playing a single movie palace with premium ticket-pricing for months on end before moving out into wider release. And though school kids were often bused to see movies like "Ten Commandments" that were considered morally uplifting, the films were clearly aimed at adult moviegoers.

By the end of the '60s, though, such epic movies were eclipsed by a hipper, scruffier, more fast-paced form of moviemaking. As far as spectacle goes, that now belongs to fantasy and sci-fi movies like the "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" franchises, with CG armies replacing conscripted extras.

Hollywood still does occasionally return to the past, as it did with the Oscar-winning "Braveheart" in 1995 and "Gladiator" in 2000. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. More often, when a movie like last year's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which did manage to pick up an Oscar for its costumes, hits theaters in wide release, it arrives without the attendant pomp and circumstance that surrounded the old road-show attractions. As a result, "Elizabeth" commanded just $16.4 million domestically.

Instead, historical epics have migrated to TV, where they have been domesticated into miniseries like HBO's "John Adams" and Showtime's "The Tudors." They still offer some of high-flown rhetoric that characterized the best epics of old: "Adams" has been most compelling when dramatizing the debate surrounding the Declaration of Independence, while "Tudors" concerns itself with the continually shifting alliances between England, France, Spain and the Vatican. But to keep viewers tuned in, they spend just as much time on the Adams' household arrangements and Henry VIII's bed-hopping.

Heston's death did summon up fond memories of a long-ago era. Those indelible images -- Moses parting the Red Sea, Ben-Hur whipping his horses forward in that thundering chariot race -- aren't easily replicated these days. His passing is a reminder that the movies have gotten small.