Saturday, February 17, 2024

Charlton Heston does comedy!

Charlton Heston is the sort of actor that when you think of him, you don't necessarily think of comedy, at least not intentional comedy. But he did do at least one, which TCM showed when Heston was their Star of the Month back in October: The Private War of Major Benson.

Heston plays Maj. Benson, who as the movie opens is commanding a bunch of men in some sort of training exercise. He's a decidedly by-the-books officer, making the men drill the portion they're working on over and over until they get it right. In response, one of the men gives Maj. Benson some choice words. The only thing is, Benson can't really do anything about it, since the words are his own words, that he had said in confidence some time back. Except that those words which weren't supposed to go anywhere wound up in Newsweek magazine for all the world to see.

For that, Benson gets called to Washington, where Maj. Gen. Ramsey (Milburn Stone) is exceedingly displeased. To punish Benson, Ramsey gives him a new assignment. Ramsey knows a school that has a junior ROTC program, except that it's not going very well. It's to the point where if they don't pass their next inspection, they're going to lose their ROTC affiliation, and that's going to drive the parents to pull their boys out of the school, putting it in jeopardy. Perhaps Maj. Benson can make the students pass inspection.

And then Benson gets to the school and finds... it's a Catholic military school, run by Mother Redempta (Nana Bryant), who also happens to be the sister of Maj. Gen. Ramsey, which would explain why he knows about this school and its problems. Also there are the new doctor, Kay Lamber (Julie Adams), who is also clearly there as a love interest to Benson; and John (William Demarest), the school's janitor/handyman since the nuns can't do that stuff themselves; and the boys, ranging in age from high single digits to high school age.

Oh, the boys. At this point the movie becomes a fairly predictable piece in which Maj. Benson is strict in part because that's the only thing he knows, while the boys are partly incompetent and partly rebelling against Benson's authority. It's a bit of a surprising cast of boys, too, considering what they went on to: Sal Mineo, David Janssen, and Tim Considine are among them. Considine plays Cadet Hibler, whose father knows a bunch of people in Washington. When Hibler has had it with Maj. Benson's discipline, he and the other boys write to his parents. They come for the parents' weekend, and, finding what Maj. Benson is like, take it to Washington, which threatens Benson's career in the Army.

Charlton Heston is one of those actors who I think wouldn't have been that adept at most comedy. But The Private War of Major Benson is a lot closer to the sort of movie where he's not being so funny as much as having everyone else around him be funny, as well as having a script structured to take Heston's talents and build the humor around that. The movie turned out to be a commercial success, and I think it's easy to see why. It's the sort of material that's comforting because it's predictable.

The Private War of Major Benson was never going to turn Charlton Heston into a comic actor. But it's a good enough movie that's worth a watch.

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