The Awakening (1980) with Charlton Heston

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They thought they had buried her forever!

 

There are classic movie actors who stand as the pillars of cinematic history and others who, although insanely famous, just appear in hindsight as also-rans. One iconic actor who for me falls into the latter category is Charlton Heston. For me, Heston’s work appears for the most part overly wooden and less than dynamic, and his career really can be broken down in to three distinct periods.

First and perhaps foremost, is the pivotal leading man of the biblical epic. Of course here the films that come to mind are Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Heston’s second phase takes him into science fiction, most notably with The Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Solyent Green.

Lastly, there was the final stage of his career, which for me could be explained either by simply trading his reputation for a paycheck (his cameo in Wayne’s World, for example), or doing parts he liked, regardless of the overall quality of the project.

If one agreed with these three buckets for his career (and yes, I know that is a huge assumption), most would put 1980’s The Awakening in the last bucket. I would differ, however, and put it in the second phase, even though it borders on horror more than science fiction- though a more subtle and pervasive horror than your current slasher level of films.

Unlike most, I like The Awakening. It has gotten a pounding critically since its release in 1980, being panned ever since. The faults are numerous, depending on who you believe. Poor acting. Tired plot. No action. It obviously has a lot in common with the slightly earlier The Omen, though surely not as tight a film as its precursor.

I will agree with the tired plot, but my agreement stops there. I’d even venture to say that although tired, it is still well executed, though it doesn’t cater to the fast paced audiences of today.

Charlton Heston is Egyptologist Matthew Corbeck, who is on the hunt for the lost tomb of the forgotten queen Kara. Along with him are his pregnant wife, Anne (played by Jill Townsend) and assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York).

Of course he finds the lost tomb just as his wife goes into labor back at his field camp. We get the first precursors of what the future holds as Anne’s oncoming labor pains stab at her in sync with each impact of Heston’s sledgehammer on the slab over the tomb. Hmmmm, wonder what that could mean?

Heston stays at the dig while his daughter Margaret (Stephanie Zimbalist) is born. Feeling neglected and ignored wife and child soon abandon Heston for the States, leaving Heston behind. He eventually settles in London and marries his assistant.

It is no surprise that Queen Kara, the subject of his quest, has returned in the form of Margaret and only needs the right timing to show herself. This transformation is hoped to be subtle, but any viewer out of elementary school sees it from the start. There are no surprises plot-wise here.

But that doesn’t make it a bad film-quite the contrary. Heston’s somewhat wooden style seems to work here, and his comically fake beard in the latter two thirds of the film is perhaps the only visual flaw in the film. No expense is spared to make The Awakening look and sound absolutely astounding. The sets are detailed and somewhat accurate for the period and the film was also was obviously filmed to great extent on-site in Egypt as opposed to on some secluded soundstage.

Behind the scenes we have great talent as well. Mike Newell, whose later efforts would include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire directs. It isn’t a flashy style here, but the tension and suspense slowly builds, thought there are a few murders which look a bit too much like pale imitations of similar events in The Omen.

Second unit director and Cinematographer is the wonderful Jack Cardiff, acclaimed as one of the best in his field, and rightly so. The epic Egyptian landscape is wonderfully filmed above ground, with the in-tomb sequences being equally claustrophobic.

Claude Bolling, though also not a personal favorite, provides a mesmerizing score which rises and falls exactly as it should and provides outstanding atmosphere.

There are also a few tie-ins with James Bond as well. I didn’t know this at first watching, but the style of the opening titles looked oddly familiar. Come the end credits and guess what – Maurice Binder, who did the great opening titles for most of the early Bond pictures takes a design credit here as well.

The other Bond tie in is the “Bondmaker,” Stephanie Zimbalist. This isn’t her finest work as it’s a bit hammy, but she plays the role well enough. The tie in to Bond is that she worked with both Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan in their pre-007 days.

So don’t let the rumors get you down on The Awakening, for it really is a pleasant surprise. Well worth your time. Is it a guilty pleasure? Perhaps, though a pleasure nonetheless. Long available only on VHS, WAC has finally released it as part of their MOD program.

Thanks also to WB for the review copy.

1 comment… add one

  • Joseph A. Shannon August 28, 2012, 10:52 am

    Finally someone who believes that THE AWAKENING (1980) is not the worst movie ever made. I certainly disagree with your scathing attack on Chuck Heston’s career but it is really a pleasant surprise to read something about this film that is not totally derogatory.

    The movie may not be of lasting cinematic achievement nevertheless, what should be appreciated is that the majority of the film was actually shot on location in Egypt with much of the action going back and forth between Cairo and the Valley of the Kings. The opening credits overlay the names of the cast against a backdrop of shimmering water reflecting various monuments of Egypt. These opening credits alone are worth the price of admission and the on location cinematography is very impressive. The over all plot is a little hokey but once again the location shots are marvelous and Charlton Heston acquits himself quite well as an impassioned Egyptologist in pursuit of the tomb of the fictitious Queen Kara. There are several scenes taking place in the interior of the Cairo Museum and the long shot of Heston and colleagues descending the famous staircase located alongside the large statues of Amenhotep III and his queen Tuya is very striking. There are also several scenes shots in the British Museum. Once again it is the on locations scenes that make this film worthwhile.

    Thanks again, Joe Shannon

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