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Charlton Heston is definitely not known for his comedies, but The Private War of Major Benson (1955) not only did very well at the box office, it even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story (by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher). Heston plays a hard-nosed Army officer who, in order to avoid a dishonorable discharge, takes an assignment to lead an ROTC program at a Catholic military school for young boys in California.
Heston made this movie while on hiatus from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956). That film unit had just returned from Egypt, and was waiting for production to start up again on the Paramount lot. Heston had read the script for Major Benson before leaving for Egypt, and as he recalled in his autobiography, "between the nuns and the kids, it made for a very funny script, exactly what I was looking for as a change of pace after Commandments." Upon returning to the States, however, he learned that Paramount had sold the script to Universal. The only way he could star in it now was "for no salary at all, just a percentage of the profits, which are usually impossible to identify, let alone collect." Happily for Heston, Major Benson did move into profit. "It's the only successful film comedy I've ever done," he wrote. "I feel a special pleasure every time Universal mails me another check for my share, which is regularly. It's also a good picture."
It was a happy time for Heston for a more personal reason, too. Before traveling to Egypt with DeMille, Heston learned that his wife was pregnant. DeMille, upon hearing this news, realized that the baby would be about three months old by the time DeMille was ready to shoot scenes involving the baby Moses. "If your baby's a boy," he told the Hestons half-jokingly, "he could play the part." Months later, while The Ten Commandments was temporarily shut down and Major Benson was still in production, Heston's wife gave birth. It was a boy, named Fraser. Within hours, a telegram arrived from DeMille: "Congratulations. He's cast in the part."
Appearing in Major Benson as General Ramsey is character actor Milburn Stone. He and Heston had become good friends since working together a few years earlier in The Savage (1952), and one day on the set of Major Benson, Stone asked his pal for some advice. He had been offered a role in a new television show but was worried about getting stuck in a long-term commitment. Heston advised simply signing for one season at a time. Stone did just that, Heston recalled, "which meant CBS had to renegotiate his contract annually for 22 years of Gunsmoke. It made him a substantial fortune...Couldn't've happened to a better guy."
Also in the cast of The Private War of Major Benson are 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 the one for which he is best-remembered: Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
The Private War of Major Benson was shot on location at St. Catherine's Military School in Anaheim, Calif., which receives a thank-you credit at film's end.
Producer: Howard Pine
Director: Jerry Hopper
Screenplay: Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher, William Roberts, Richard Alan Simmons
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Film Editing: Ted J. Kent
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Henry Mancini
Cast: Charlton Heston (Major Bernard Benson), Julie Adams (Dr. Kay Lambert), William Demarest (John), Tim Hovey (Cadet Thomas Flaherty), Nana Bryant (Mother Redempta), Tim Considine (Cadet Sgt. Hibler).
by Jeremy Arnold