Fraser Heston was kind enough to take time to talk with me about the re-release of some of his father’s greatest films. Fraser, who played the baby Moses in The Ten Commandments, directed his father in Charlton Heston Presents the Bible. Both have been restored and are being re-released this week.
How did the Bible project come about?
That came out of a conversation between my dad and me many years ago, in the early 90’s. We were sitting around talking about what his next project should be. Dad said, “I’ve always wanted to record the Bible again.” He had done a wonderful recording for Vanguard records back in the 50’s. I said, “If we’re going to record the Bible, it has to be on film. We’re not going to do it behind a curtain. And we have to go to the holy land. We have to film in something like a Roman amphitheater. And we’re going to need some great Biblical art. Let’s illustrate these stories — we can’t just have my dad talking all the time. We found these marvelous paintings throughout the whole history of Biblical art. We decided to make a broader, much more open-ended and he ended up doing the commentaries between chapters. We didn’t do the whole Bible. We did his favorite stories, edited down. And then he comments and talks about it as a story-teller or an actor, not as a priest or a scholar, to share these stories and the beautiful art that goes with them, for people of all faiths.
The King James translation?
He loved the King James translation. It’s beautiful language and still very accessible. I think it’s the most powerful translation and he did as well. We talk about it, how it came to be written, how there are foibles and mistranslations and how it’s all part of the warp and weft of the fabric of the Bible.
How did you find the images?
You have to hire a whole department who researches these things and get the rights and get a filmable image – nowadays we do that all with a computer. The aggregate of all of these images together from Salvador Dali to the classics from the Sistine ceiling and the Michelangelo Moses, all of them together have such an impact.
What else is being restored and re-released?
“Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” And we’re also re-releasing some of our classic films through Warner Brothers like “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and “Mother Lode,” directed by my father and co-starring Kim Basinger,” and “Treasure Island,” with a young man you may have heard of: Christian Bale.
How long did it take?
It was as long as a feature. We were in the holy land for about three months. And of course in Jerusalem there’s a checkerboard of different faiths and they all have different Sabbaths and holidays. The Moslems have Friday, the Jews have Saturday, and the Christians have Sunday. And different sects have control the access to this monastery or that little place, and so on. One day I was filming in what they call the Hall of the Last Supper and went down to get a cup of coffee and found myself in the tomb of King David. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. I’ve just walked out of one chapter of the Bible and into another, transcended thousands of years of history.” It was pretty darn cool.
Do you have a favorite Bible story?
I love the New Testament but I am very, very partial to the story of Moses. The story of the exodus is the story of freedom. And how poignant today that people on the same ground, walking on the same sand, are fighting for their freedom in Egypt and North Africa. The irony couldn’t be stronger, could it? The words of Moses are inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Go forward and proclaim liberty throughout the land.” That became a watchword for Dad. Everything he did had to do with freedom.
What stories did you hear about your portrayal of baby Moses in “The Ten Commandments?”
The very first telegram my mother got when I was born was from C.B. DeMille [the director]. He said, “Congratulations, he’s got the part!” And then they put me in the basket and the darn thing sank! My dad had to go out there and rescue me. I’ll never forgive them for that.
Did your father have a favorite Bible passage?
He loved the death of Moses, where he passes on his mantle to Joshua. He had it by heart and never forgot it, even when he had Alzheimer’s. It’s just a moving passage. “I shall not cross over.” It’s very moving and there are so many moving scenes in that story and in that film that just kind of ring true. So many small, human moments. Moses was not divine, though that was not always clear in the DeMille version. He questioned his worthiness, and that just makes you care about the guy. He has loves and hates and he has a temper. He becomes a very human character in a giant story. It’s a mistake to hold the Bible up as a remote, sheltered experience. It needs to be vibrant and contemporary. And “Man for All Seasons,” a whole Charlton Heston collection. He was an actor’s director. He was artistic; he looked at the scene from an artist’s point of view, a story-teller, not to call attention to himself as a director but just tell a story the best way he can. He learned that from William Wyler and C.B. DeMille. “Ben Hur” and “Ten Commandments” are not about the effects or the crowds or the action; it’s about the people. Many times the camera doesn’t move at all. Shots like that are what you remember from those films. We are so fortunate that a major part of our cultural heritage is being restore with such care by Warner’s made made available to a new generation.
I have one copy each of “Charlton Heston Presents the Bible” on DVD and “The Ten Comandments” on DVD and Blu-Ray to give away. To enter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the DVD or Blu-Ray you want in the subject line. Be sure to include your address. I will select a winner at random on April 2. Good luck! (My policy on accepting prizes to give away is posted on the site.)