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Charlton Heston: going from left to right

Brattle mini-fest shows actor's wide political spectrum

Why was Charlton Heston pointing his trigger finger at Bob Dylan?

There they were, a cultural Mutt and Jeff, 10 years ago at the White House, as Kennedy Center honorees: Heston, the pillar of the Hollywood establishment and National Rifle Association president who famously declared "You can take my rifle . . . when you pry it from my cold dead hands!," and Dylan, the anti-establishment icon who in "Masters of War" took a rather different view of weaponry. Poor Lauren Bacall must have felt like a UN peacekeeping mission.

Or did she? "Charlton Heston's Apocalypse," a mini-festival that plays at the Brattle Theatre through Monday might indicate there was a safeguard on the trigger. Heston and Dylan were likely recalling time spent on the barricades -- not toe to toe, but shoulder to shoulder.

Long before he was tangling with Michael Moore in "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), Heston was demonstrating with Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. Dylan was there, too. Except Heston wasn't singing with Joan Baez. He was at the front of the march, alongside such celebrated Hollywood liberals as Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, and Paul Newman.

He wasn't the first star to make the journey from left to right. The most obvious example is Ronald Reagan. Others include James Cagney and Frank Sinatra. But Heston's ideological journey is all the more striking for the fact that several of his movies can be read in overtly liberal terms.

Today and tomorrow the Brattle offers a double bill of "Planet of the Apes" (1968) and "Earthquake" (1974). "Earthquake" isn't political -- except to the extent that, as one the many lavish disaster movies the era produced, it can be seen as taking that other very '70s genre, the paranoid thriller, to its illogically logical conclusion. Everything, even nature, is out to get us.

The political message in "Planet" is hard to miss. Heston plays an astronaut, that '60s Establishment hero par excellence. This astronaut, though, meets a fate NASA never intended. He fetches up on a planet where apes rule and humans are considered animals. This puts Heston on the receiving end of a sociopolitical parable about race and oppression that the Black Panthers might have endorsed. "Planet" concludes with an in-your-face-America image of a fallen national monument (no, it's not Heston) that's one of the great sucker punches in Hollywood history.

Heston had long specialized in playing great men of the past: Moses, El Cid, John the Baptist, Michelangelo, and, closer to home, Andrew Jackson (twice). He looked like a figure out of history, or at least the way we think history should look: high forehead (intelligence, seriousness), extended jaw (just right for thoughtful chin-stroking), long, lean face (idealistic, almost saintly albeit in a reassuringly masculine way).

Those Founding Father features make it all the more unsettling to see Heston stuck in a dysfunctional future, as he is in the double feature that plays Sunday and Monday: "The Omega Man" (1971) and "Soylent Green" (1973). Never himself a radical, he finds himself in both at the center of some fairly radical messages. They're cautionary tales that are also accusatory tales.

"The Omega Man" is based on a 1954 sci-fi novel "I Am Legend" (a new film version, with Will Smith in the Heston role, is scheduled for Christmas release). Chemical warfare between China and the Soviet Union has killed everyone on Earth -- except for Heston, who's holed up in an LA apartment building, and several hundred members of "The Family" (shades of Charles Manson!), whom the war has reduced to a nearly subhuman state. It's a war to the death between them and Heston. Of course, some Family members are less subhuman -- not to mention more attractive -- than others: Heston gets to have a brief, interracial, romance with Rosalind Cash. So along with the antiwar, antitechnology themes, there's one of racial unity, too.

"Soylent Green" is, if anything, bleaker than "Omega Man." Thirty-five years later, it might be seen, in its melodramatic way, as trying to do for global overpopulation what Al Gore, in "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) would do for global warming. Call it "An Indigestible Secret."

It's 2022, New York has a population of 40 million, and most people subsist on the processed food the movie's named after. Heston is a New York cop investigating the murder of an executive at the corporation that makes it. He discovers the stuff comes from . . . well, even if the shock value of what Heston finds out doesn't quite match that of the final image in "Planet of the Apes," it's certainly up there.

America would soon turn right, and Charlton Heston along with it. Yet these Brattle programs remind us that, more than most, perhaps, he had his reasons. Living under ape rule, being the last man on Earth, finding out that vegetarians may really be on to something: It's enough to make even the most progressive person appreciate the virtues of the Second Amendment -- or at least reach for a Bud Light.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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