The Private War of Major Benson (1955)
Trying to locate a change of pace during his long shoot of The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston sought out this military comedy released by Universal International. He wanted the role bad enough to sign on for no salary but instead a share of the profits and according to his autobiography was proud of the film and the fact that it was his only successful foray into comedy.
Chuck is a tough as nails military commander who isn’t one to lay off his men or military regulations as David Janssen finds out in the film’s opening scene. Heston soon finds himself in hot water over comments he makes to the press and the brass wants his resignation. A second chance is offered by a General/friend played by Gunsmoke’s Milburn Stone.
Putting his tail between his legs Heston is off to save a military school from being disbanded. What he doesn’t realize is that the young men are just a little younger than he anticipates. They are mostly young boys ranging from about 5 to 15 years of age and his strict hard nosed tactics are about to clash with the likes of a young Sal Mineo and lovable Tim Hovey.
In an attempt to soften the hard exterior, the Mother superior explains to our leading lady Julie Adams that Heston was a war hero who saved many lives under fire. Adams and Heston are quite taken with each other but of course as is customary there is some initial sparring to get through before Heston can make any head way in the romance department.
It doesn’t help his case when he offers young Mineo some fatherly advice concerning women. “Females are about ten percent brains and ninety percent emotion.” Then there’s “Females are very complicated creatures.” Yes he’s digging the hole deeper where Adams is concerned. She proves quite lethal with a right hook to the square jaw of our military he-man.
The film makes good use of Heston’s height when towering over the likes of little Hovey. When asked how tall he thinks Chuck is the boy proclaims about ten feet. Judging by the use of the camera angle from director Jerry Hopper I’m inclined to agree.
There’s no surprises here but then one shouldn’t expect any. Heston’s tough, Adams is going to soften him up and the boys who naturally don’t like their new Commanding Officer just might come around to see he has a soft side as well. This is a fun film that pokes holes in the stoic Heston image.
Heston had already worked with director Jerry Hopper on Pony Express and the Indiana Jones inspiration Secret of the Incas. Hopper would move into television where he would reunite with Milburn Stone on some Gunsmoke episodes and Janssen on The Fugitive as well.
This was also the same year that Sal Mineo would appear with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause earning him a place in film history.
Julie Adams is another beautiful contract player at Universal Studios who appeared with many leading men of the day from Heston to Tyrone Power and Glenn Ford. But it is The Creature From the Black Lagoon who is her most famous costar.
As it is with many films you’ll find some character players offering great support and this film is no different with Nana Bryant as the Mother Superior and cantankerous William Demarest as the school’s caretaker.
This one turns up occasionally on television and was released on VHS years ago of which I still have a copy till I find a DVD release that plays better. How about a Heston box set. Kind of overdue. This one is worth checking out for some old fashioned comedy and romance using macho Heston as the backdrop.