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Proud Men (1987)

This network television movie represents one of the very few Charlton Heston movies I had yet to see until now after finally unwrapping a DVD release of the film I’d had on the shelf for far longer than I care to admit. Big mistake on my part as I came away from this father-son drama very impressed with both Heston in the role of a dying modern day rancher and his estranged son played by Peter Strauss.

The opening image of Heston on horseback with a calf slung across his saddle in silhouette against a rising sun is a perfect way to introduce this icon of cinema over the opening credits. He’s riding an open range and giving us a nostalgic look backwards to his earlier days on screen in westerns like Will Penny, supposedly his favorite film of all those he starred in. Heston represents the past. He’s a tough old timer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly around his cattle operation but can melt in the arms of his aging wife wonderfully played by Nan Martin, an actress who like Heston began her acting career on camera back in the early 50’s.

Strauss has been in France for the past fifteen years living in exile after going AWOL during the Vietnam war. It’s this reason that Heston has disowned him as a son and is eyeing up his lead hand Alan Autry as a viable westerner to leave a piece of his ranch to in order to carry on the family business. When Martin calls Strauss in France to come home and make peace with his father before he dies, Strauss’ own wife, Maria Mayenzet, encourages him to go before it’s too late.

And so the tense reunion begins that allows both actors to build upon their performances making this an emotional outing at times. Heston has branded his son a traitor to his country and being a veteran of WW2 that saw him overcome his own fears on the battlefield and facing death at the hands of the enemy, he cannot fathom how his own son couldn’t do the same during the Vietnam conflict. Strauss the actor will have his moment when he breaks down and tells Heston of his own nightmarish experiences in the jungles.

While these two continue to spar and the weeks go by, Mayenzet, will come to join her husband on the ranch and bring along their own young son giving Heston a chance to experience being a grandfather for the first time teaching the boy the ways of a rancher’s life.  Both men will need to learn how to love and forgive in order to move forward. Something that doesn’t come easy for either of these “proud men.”

Co-produced by Heston’s own son, Fraser, this William A. Graham film offers Heston a solid role at a time when big screen offers were really no longer coming his way. He hadn’t starred in a theatrically released film since the underappreciated Mother Lode in 1982. Like many stars of the fifties thru to the seventies including Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum, Heston found steady work in movies made for television and would for the balance of his acting career. That and his succession of big screen cameos.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Peter Strauss’ role and that of Gregory Peck’s in The Big Country which of course also starred Heston in 1958. Like Peck, Strauss will continue to quietly prove himself by riding a horse that won’t be rode. A scene in itself which might elicit a tear or two from us wanna be tough guys if no one is looking our way. Also like Peck, Strauss will have to contend with the ramrod, Alan Autry, meaning it’s going to come to fisticuffs and blood. In Peck’s case it was facing off against Heston playing the ramrod under Charles Bickford’s cattle baron.

Trivia buffs might take notice of the second unit director being Joe Canutt. Son of the famed stunt man, Yakima, Joe moved into the family business and stunt doubled Heston in what could arguably be called the screen’s greatest action sequence EVER caught on film. I am of course referring to the thrilling chariot race in the best picture of 1959, Ben-Hur.

I’d say it’s fairly obvious I liked this film and would recommend it. So much so that I think I’ll pack it in my suitcase for next week’s flight out to the east coast of Canada where I’ll visit my own parents. Pretty sure they’d like this one. Keep an eye open for the DVD release and give it a shot. You don’t need to be a Heston fan to enjoy this simple tale of a father-son relationship gone wrong. I will admit though that my being a Heston fan did add to the entertainment value seeing him in a role that was tailor made to the one time star of Hollywood epics and the coolest space traveler that ever walked the Earth in the year 3978.

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