Pauline Kael on Charleton Heson

In Decadence, Pauline Kael’s December 1974 review of Earthquake, she calls the film a “marathon of destruction effects, with stock characters spinning through. It isn’t fun, exactly; it’s ejaculatory, shoot-the-works filmmaking carried to the borderline of satire and stopping just short… there is something particularly gratifying about seeing the smoking ruin of the city that movies like this come from.” The director seems not to want to leave any calamity effects for other movies to use, “as the bodies keep jumping, falling, or being shot, buried under walls and girders, or drowned… a lot of well-known people are casually left in the debris.”

The treatment of the film’s two principal stars, Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, could almost be the in joke of an industry that enjoys the idea of self-destructing… Charlton Heston is the all-time king of prestige epics. However, the repressed acting, granitic physique, and godlike-insurance-salesman manner that made him so inhumanly perfect for fifties spectacles have also destroyed his credibility. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s humorlessly unresilient. He can’t open up: his muscles have his personality in an iron grip. When Universal uses him in its action-disaster pictures, which are all really the same movie, sold by the yard, he underacts grimly and he turns into a stereotype of himself. In Earthquake Heston plays a big-time engineer who married the daughter (Ava Gardner) of the boss (Lorne Greene) and has fallen in love with a young screen-starlet widow (Genevieve Bujold), and when the city is all shook up he dashes from one heroic deed to the next, rescuing, rescuing, rescuing. He’s a dependably heroic joke. No one is expected to believe in the acts he performs: he’s a wind-up hero-machine, and ingenious special effects and trick photography can go on around him. At the end, the movie has the embarrassing problem of what to do with him to avoid the catcalls of a jaded audience, so it cynically trashes him along with Gardner and most of Los Angeles.

Heston’s fatigued heroism serves a function: it enables us to retain an amused, disbelieving view… You feel no pang when the various characters get hit: the whole point of a pop disaster epic is for the audience to relish the ingenious ways in which they’re brought down. When a drowned man pours out of a flooded elevator, you’re meant to gasp at the shock, not lament his passing.

Also on Heston:

“We don’t respond to those Charlton Heston heroes who lack irrational impulses.” (Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences, 1976)