Los Angeles, 1977: Two years after China and Russia engage in germ warfare, Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) believes he is the only person immune to the resulting plague that wiped out the world’s population. Seemingly, the only other survivors are a cult of plague sufferers (known as “The Family”) led by Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) who are intent upon destroying Neville. In turn, Neville spends his days eradicating The Family.
With a dash of Blaxploitation, a nod to Vietnam and a hefty dose of 70s paranoia, The Omega Man is a highly entertaining adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend”. However it also operates as a fascinating study of the leading actor at a particular time.
Early in the film is a curiously onanistic sequence of Neville visiting a cinema, one he has equipped with a generator, in order to rewatch the concert film Woodstock (1970). He is slumped in his seat, assault rifle upright, fingers caressing the shaft. He mouths verbatim the dialogue of a hippie on screen declaring the peace and free love ethos of the flower power movement. Yet Heston’s act does not transfer to the viewer as one of solidarity. Rather, the constant rewatching to the point of memorisation appears an attempt to understand the philosophy, one partially inspired by the civil rights activists of the early 1960s, one of whom was Charlton Heston.
It is easy (and rather lazy) for the viewer of 2014 to refract the character of Neville through our most recent memories of the public Heston persona. This was the “My cold dead hands” NRA President, the right-wing culture war warrior, the exemplar of neo-conservative values. Except that in 1971, when The Omega Man was released, Heston remained a Democrat, albeit it a reluctant one. Throughout the 1960s he had campaigned for two Kennedys, had marched alongside Martin Luther King and supported gun control in the wake of the decade’s political assassinations.
Heston was once a moderate leftist who, by 1971, had drifted to a libertarianism. It is reflected in the film, through his personal determination to depict a sexual romance with the African-American Rosalind Cash and as a champion of personal freedoms, art and science (especially when in confrontation with The Family and their year zero policy of destruction of knowledge and creation). Heston would by 1972, though, be campaigning for Nixon, unable to reconcile with George McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War and other progressive causes.
If Heston can be seen as the exemplar of 50s liberal individualism, The Omega Man locates the crucial, post-60s point when many such men drifted to the right. Once Neville discovers another group of survivors – the youthful remnants of the hippie generation – his plan is to join them on escaping the city for an idyllic rural rebeginning. Yet neither Neville, Heston nor the 50s liberal individualist could ever exist within a collective. Unlike Moses whom he essayed on the screen in 1956, Heston is not required to lead the flock to the Promised Land. The Omega Man ends with Neville depicted as Christ. Heston’s own ‘resurrection’ came in the form of his conversion to the Republican, religious right in the 1980s.
For Neville (and the Heston of 1971), Woodstock allowed a glimpse into a future in which he could not exist. Within a decade, Heston may have thought the flower power generation had been better exemplified by another concert film from 1970, Gimme Shelter – Altamont’s rock and roll apocalypse. For the 80s Heston, it was the other collective that survived to control the culture wars: The Family.