Heston Bible series has novel approach

December 19, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Hear that Charlton Heston stars in a new biblical epic this weekend and you would be justified in anticipating a cast of thousands, much as Cecil B. DeMille drew together for "The Ten Commandments" (1956), in which Mr. Heston played a memorable Moses.

But "Charlton Heston Presents The Bible," a curious four-part "performance documentary" series (premiering tomorrow night on the Arts & Entertainment Network) boasts a cast of one: just Mr. Heston himself, reading the key stories from the King James Bible.

Television's earliest practitioners recognized, of course, that a person reading something into a camera lens -- especially something weighty -- made poor use of the medium's visual nature.

Hence, this production (at 8 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday) was filmed on location in the land of The Bible. And the show provides further visual diversion by integrating famous works of biblical art, such as Michelangelo's powerful representation of God and Adam, with an inspiration-intended music score by Leonard Rosenman.

Mr. Heston intones "In the beginning . . ." from Genesis (and other passages) while hunched over a podium in the torch-lit amphitheater of Bet-Sha'an. He opens the series standing at the foot of the Rock ofAbraham in Jerusalem. (Alas, in a perhaps unintentional mixing of morbid metaphor, he calls the site "the spiritual ground zero of Judaism and Christianity."

Indeed, unmistakably harking viewers back to his wanderings as Moses, we see frequent connecting shots of Mr. Heston during last summer's five-week location filming in The Holy Land. Clad in a safari hat and shirt and wearing a white scarf around his neck, he motors about in a four-wheel drive vehicle.

The concept, however, seems worthy: to view The Bible not from the realm of the religious but from the perspective of art appreciation.

As Mr. Heston notes early on, "The Bible wasn't always a book, or even a series of books," but simply "the telling of stories" down through the generations.

"I'm not a priest or a rabbi; I'm an actor and actors tell stories. From my perspective, there are simply no greater stories to tell," he says in an interview in publicity materials.

Thus viewers are presumably asked to imagine the actor as an ancient storyteller, dramatically reading/performing the legends of the fall and the flood and the coming of Jesus. But like so many entertainment encounters with The Bible, this series ultimately seems bowed down by the weighty veneration the book has gained through history -- and the differences of perception viewers will bring to it. Mr. Heston, for example, raises the fundamental question: If God created the heaven and the Earth, what came before? But the discussion is perfunctory, even while acknowledging the theories of modern physics.

The program piously tries to avoid taking a denominational stance, noting The Bible serves as a source of three major religions. Yet two segments are devoted to New Testament chronicles of Jesus, fundamental to neither Judaism nor Islam.

And occasional attempts to step down from the biblical mount and into the vernacular just ring silly, such as when Mr. Heston notes, in discussing whether the Cain and Abel story may signify a primal violence: "Maybe that's when God decided that sooner or later he'd have to write down some rules."

Still, humans have been turning to The Bible for guidance and discussion for ages, and "Charlton Heston Presents" certainly offers a novel approach.

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