The Private War of Major Benson - 1955
This likeable family comedy with Charlton Heston and Julie Adams is a bit under-directed by Jerry Hopper, veteran film director of the 1950s who had an extensive TV Show directing streak from the late 50s thru the late 60s, with a few projects up until 1987 (The New Leave it to Beaver, 1987).
The story line for The Private War of Major Benson is straightforward and there is plenty of background comedy provided by William Demarest, Sal Mineo and the scene-stealing eight-or nine year old Tim Hovey. Some of the film seems to have been shot too quickly as what's happening on screen doesn't fully exploit the humor in the script. Heston was actually on a break from Ten Commandments when this film was made, and he didn't take salary as he was a participant in the film profits, of which there were some: it earned approx. $2.5 million at the box office over a production budget of $750,000.
The script* for The Private War of Major Benson (which was nominated for an Oscar) contains a good share of funny scenes and moves us steadily through the tale. Adams and Heston are also fine as a pair who eventually come together in the running of a boy's military school called Sheridan Academy which is in danger of losing their ROTC accreditation. The problem facing the school seems to be primarily that they're using an outmoded curriculum and the previous two headmasters were apparently quite elderly, with the result is that the school is really run by a team of nuns and now the facility has to catch up in a hurry as an important inspection will be happening at the conclusion of the school year.
Heston (as Major Benson) is a hard-charging combat veteran who has shot his mouth off complaining about how the US Army has been "getting soft" to a news magazine, an unforgiveable offense that has produced outrage and anger at the Pentagon. The bad publicity from this has reduced his allies in Washington DC to a single commander who gives Major Benson one chance to salvage his career by getting Sheridan Academy back into shape.
I'm not buying the new order of things! This army is overfed and under-trained! I've spent 15 years in the army, all the way from buck private on up! We got to work these troops until their tails drag and then kick them back into shape and work them some more. We've got to change these milk-shaking school boys into whiskey-drinking soldiers..."
Benson arrives at Sheridan with only a faint idea of what he'll be doing and who he'll be doing it to, and some of the early comedy of the film is Major Benson discovering that his drill master methods of intimidation and rough treatment doesn't produce the result he wants when done to nuns and children. The school's doctor (Julie Adams) is a "real MD" as the astonished Major Benson discovers, and so the film in its way is the tale of a throwback tough guy who has to do something other than just beat his men into shape, he's got to modernize his way of thinking. Even more so, he has to learn that the kids have an exaggerated sense of his power, such as when little Hovey is asked how tall does he think Major Benson is, and answers "about ten feet tall."
Major Benson learns some nuance, and Julie Adams' doctor (called "Lamby" by the boys) goes toe-to-toe with him over and over until Benson's retraining starts to pan out for the good, though its hard for him and he quits at least once in frustration and confusion at the sheer magnitude of dealing with human beings instead of military recruits.
Heston is actually quite good as the knuckle-dragging officer whose mule-headed stubbornness produces easy comedy effects, and Julie Adams is a rather sharp-tongued spectator who has to point out the obvious more than once. In a way the film is also a paean to the struggles of young boys away from home living in something that's half-orphanage and half-barracks.
This film was loosely remade in 1995 with Damon Wayans as Benson Payne in Major Payne who takes on the training of young cadets in a JROTC program.
*Screenplay by William Roberts, Richard Alan Simmons with story by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher
More about The Private War of Major Benson
The Private War of Major Benson was a financial success when it was released in 1955. The film had mostly positive reviews from critics and audiences alike, and was a box office hit, grossing more than $2 million in the United States against a production cost of production budget of $750,000. The film's success helped to establish Charlton Heston as a leading Hollywood star and contributed to his growing reputation , this before the coming release of mega-blockbuster The Ten Commandments in 1956.
Love is News was released July 26, 1955
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