Charlton Heston, Sal Mineo, Julie Adams, Tim Considine, Tim Hovey, and Joey D. Vieira in The Private War of Major Benson (1955)


(director: Jerry Hopper; screenwriters: story by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher/William Roberts/Richard Alan Simmons; cinematographer: Harold Lipstein; editor: Ted J. Kent; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Charlton Heston (Major Bernard Benson), Julie Adams (Dr. Kay Lambert), William Demarest (John), Tim Hovey (Cadet Thomas “Tiger” Flaherty), Nana Bryant (Mother Redempta), Tim Considine (Cadet Sgt. Hibler), Milburn Stone (Major General Jim Ramsey), Sal Mineo (Cadet Colonel Sylvester Dusik); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Pine; Universal Pictures; 1955)
“Heston shows a surprising flair for comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charlton Heston shot it during a break from playing Moses in The Ten Commandments. The Oscar winning story is by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who later went on to create the hit TV series of Leave It To Beaver. The screenwriters are William Roberts and Richard Alan Simmons. Jerry Hopper (“Toy Tiger”/”Smoke Signal”/ “Everything But the Truth”) competently directs this eager to please sitcom comedy. It’s filled with cutesy sentimental hokum and is manipulative to a fault, but Heston shows a surprising flair for comedy and makes it at least watchable. The film proved to be popular and Heston who worked for no salary but a percentage of the profits, and ended up making out quite well.

It has hard-nosed war veteran Major Barney Benson (Charlton Heston) griping about the troops under his command and his speech about the troops being “overfed and under trained” is printed in Newsweek magazine. This angers the top brass and the Major is given a choice over being drummed out of the military or given a last chance due to the request of his former commander General Jim Ramsey (Milburn Stone) that he be the commandant of Sheraton Military Academy in Santa Barbara, California, a Catholic boarding school with an ROTC program that’s on probation and has a year to pass muster or lose its ROTC certification. The students range in age from six to fourteen years. It was shot on location at St. Catherine’s Military School in Anaheim, California.

Benson is attracted to the resident doctor Kay Lambert (Julie Adams), who is concerned he’ll be too tough on the children and at first resents his presence before falling for his charm. The friendly groundskeeper is John (William Demarest). Mother Redempta (Nana Bryant) is the kind-hearted head of the school, who urges Benson to use his “fatherly influence” to shape the boy’s souls. The commandant’s stern rules cause the students to be unhappy and they further complain over his policy of stiff demerits, causing them to “gold-brick.” There’s also the 6-year-old misfit, Cadet Thomas “Tiger” Flaherty (Tim Hovey), who thinks the Major hates him and steals every scene by just being so adorable.

The comedy is never as zany and funny as it should have been, as it goes by the numbers until it ultimately shows Benson winning the respect of his young charges as he changes his most rigid ways while learning valuable life lessons and it leads to as expected a happy finale.

Cast in minor roles are future stars David Janssen as a lieutenant and Sal Mineo as a cadet. Janssen would later play Dr. Richard Kimble in television’s The Fugitive, while Mineo’s next movie would be his best-remembered: Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

It was remade as Major Payne (1995).