The 1955 comedy film: “The Private War of Major Benson” is often regarded by film critics and historians, if they mention it at all, as a forgettable little diversion that Charlton Heston shot while on an unforeseen hiatus from “The Ten Commandments” which was stalled because of director Cecil B. DeMille’s convalescence after a mild heart attack. Actually, the movie is a rather adept exploration of boyhood, the father-son relationship, adolescent male peer dynamics, masculine hero idolatry, the fragile desire for manly affirmation, the difficulties inherent in becoming a man, and, how it can easily all go wrong.
Camille Paglia once wrote: “A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive…and is confirmed only by other men.”
Written by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who both went on to be the co-creators and writers of “Leave to Beaver,” another exploration of the father-son relationship, in “The Private War of Major Benson,” Charlton Heston plays an army war veteran drill instructor who believes that the soldiers under his command are “over fed” and “under trained;” and, that it’s his job to turn these “milk drinking kids” into real men. As a result, although good-intentioned, he constantly badgers and browbeats the men until they begin to mock him. Then, “Newsweek” magazine hears about the loud-mouthed and opinionated Major; when they run an interview with Benson, in which he is critical of the Army, as a punishment he is sent to an ROTC cadet school, Sheridan Military Academy, that is in danger of losing its rating.
At his new assignment, the Major, who assumed he would be overseeing older boys, discovers that the Academy is a Catholic boarding school for children ranging in age from their early teens to 6 years old. Until his arrival, the previous instructors had all been aged military retirees. Therefore, in Major Benson, the school principal, Mother Redempta, played beautifully by character actress Nana Bryant, best remembered by Catholic as the Mother Superior in the convent of St. Bernadette from “The Song of Bernadette,” saw not only a strict disciplinarian in the Major, but a virile man who could provide a “fatherly guidance,” especially for the younger boys; at that suggestion, Benson bristles with near revulsion. Incredibly out of his element, he treats his new charges no differently than he would his soldiers. Again, this elicits only contempt from most of the boys; but, this is also where things get very interesting – for, not all the cadets hate Major Benson. The majority, who probably come from intact healthy homes, after all – this is the mid-1950s, and, we see a few with their parents at a school function: to these boys – Benson is an annoyance and an inconvenience – someone who is making them work too hard; but, the film, instead of focusing on the group, concentrates on the relationship between Benson and three particular boys: Dusik, Hibler, and “Tiger.”
The only boy who adamantly appreciates and likes Benson is also one of the oldest: Sylvester Dusik – ironically played by later “gay” murder victim Sal Mineo. Dusik, who is relaxed and self-confident, who is also the only boy shown brave enough to ask a girl out, is already well on the way to manhood; he looks at Benson less as a father-figure and more as an older brother or even simply as his military superior. Later, when Benson becomes ill and is unable to finish the military training required for the school to pass ROTC inspection, Dusik takes over and becomes a sort of Major Benson doppelganger: barking orders at the unruly youngsters and eventually getting them ready for the all-important visit by the Army brass. Here, the influence of Benson merely finalized the already burgeoning masculinity within Dusik; because, he was by this time nearly formed, Dusik responded positively to Benson. But, this is not the case with all of the boys.
The second boy, the younger middle-school aged Hibler, reacts to Benson with a sort of vindictive rebellion that verges on self-destruction. Early on, the Major and Hibler clash; but unlike Dusik, Hibler’s apparent self-assurance, when he boldly speaks back to the Major after being punished, is not a sign of maturity, but appears petulant and whiny. He is trying to make the step over into manhood, but is flailing miserably. When we meet his parents, it begins to make sense: the mother is a sour-faced harpy, perfectly cast, who patronizes her son. Claiming that the boy has “emotional problems,” and finding no sympathy from Benson, she proceeds to threaten the Major; apparently the Hiblers have powerful friends in the military. But, Benson stands strong and doesn’t fold under pressure. Understandably, in the midst of all this bickering, the silent father is a beaten and neutered man; although, just after his wife barges out of Benson’s office, he turns to the Major and agrees with him. This is what I would label as the “Psycho” syndrome – a boy with a domineering mother and a weak father; as a reaction against the oppressiveness of the authoritarian female; the boy, as an adult, either becomes obsessed with violent MILF porn, or to the extreme – turns into a serial rapist. In the case of Hibler, he is pre-psychotic: in a weird sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, he endlessly buys and steals small mechanical objects, removes the insides, and then replaces the parts so that the mechanism works in reverse; reminds me of the fastidious Norman Bates and his preoccupation with taxidermy. It’s a pathetic nervous disorder, completely caused by his home life; when he is caught pilfering, Hibler desperately asks Benson: “Are you going to say something to my mother?” Again, there is this reversal taking place: because, he does not ask, what would be more typical: “Are you going to say something to my father.” This lack of fatherly guidance, and affection, is psychologically crushing on the neglected boy; in the Frances Hodgson Burnett book ‘The Secret Garden,” alienation and denial from the father literally paralyzes the son. Today, at least Hibler, would probably be treated with Ritalin; inebriating the pain of childhood, in the same way that homosexuality covers over the pain with the false mask of “gay” self-acceptance.
The most severe reaction to Major Benson is experienced by the 6 year old “Tiger” Flaherty; when Benson first meets the boy, “Tiger” is feigning a non-existent injury, clinging to the female school doctor, Dr. Lambert, played by Julie Adams, while referring to her as “Lammy.” “Tiger,” despite his masculine sounding nickname is pre-homosexual; his father is dead and his working mother, hoping to offer the boy a male role model, sends him to Sheridan Academy. And, in a sense, Tiger is immediately drawn to Benson, but then immediately revolted when Benson severally criticizes and repudiates him; at times, Benson’s verbal treatment of the boy borders on sadistically abusive; to the child, Benson becomes a sort of masculine demigod: all-powerful, superior, distant, unapproachable, unattainable, but also disapproving and ultimately rejecting; I label this the “Wolf Larsen” type after the hyper-masculine tyrant in Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf;” other historical examples are Michelangelo’s funeral sculpture for Giuliano de’Medici, baseball player Ty Cobb, the “Marlboro Man,” the father in Pat Conroy’s novel “The Great Santini,” the maniacal super-jock dad, played by Vic Morrow, in “The Bad News Bears,” and the egotistical bodybuilder from “The Village People” song “Macho Man.” Yet, within these worlds of hyperbolic masculinity is an inevitable swerve into tragedy: from scandal and lung cancer to isolation and AIDS. Benson is in danger of falling into this trap because, especially with the younger boys, represented by “Tiger,” he doesn’t comprehend the power of his own masculinity and that you cannot treat all boys in the same manner – in that, some need more guidance, some need more discipline, and, while they all need those things, they also need love.
The high point of the film occurs when the boys finally reject Benson; a letter signed by all the students was sent to Washington DC, asking for the Major’s removal, although it is now regretted by Hibler who was once the mastermind behind the whole thing. When this comes to light, Benson gives up and secretly leaves the school late at night. At the local bus-station, he runs into “Tiger;” the boy is trying to buy a ticket back home. Herein lies the two greatest shots of the film: looking up, and the audience shares his point of view, the very diminutive “Tiger” sees the towering Benson staring down on him with disdain; this is the archetype image for all pre-homosexual boys who at once feel rebuffed by the male, but also begin to idolize masculinity as the supreme unattainable; in addition, this image has a lasting power within “gay” male culture. Benson grabs the boy as he tries to escape then asks him why he is running away. Benson, stubbornly semi-oblivious, doesn’t yet see how he affected the boy. When questioned about who he hates at the school, “Tiger” looks directly at Benson; then, suddenly, it finally dawns on him. A moment later, the second greatest shot in the film: again, “Tiger” is looking up at Benson in awe, the boy gulps and asks: “How tall are you?” Benson answers rather conceitedly: “How tall do you think?” “Tiger,” still gaping up at him, says: “About 10 feet tall.” Benson, suddenly self-aware and thoughtful, responds: “Yeah, I guess it does look that way.”
From that point onward, Benson changes, and, finally he becomes the “fatherly” figure that Mother Redempta hoped for; in the end, he becomes the complete father to all three boys in varying stages of manhood: a strong male, which he already embodied to the confident Dusik; an understanding disciplinarian to the troubled Hibler, and a masculine source of love to the young and needy “Tiger.” In the end, it’s a process he and the boys had to go through together. And, lastly, this begs to mention the second interesting dynamic in the film: that is the relationship between “Lammy” and the students. For the most part, her intrusions are needling and marked by a feminine instinct to protect, and, at times, coddle the boys; this sort of over attention by women with their sons can easily turn into a smothering sort of emotional suffocation. As Camille Paglia theorized, that boys can only be ushered into manhood by other men; when women enter the picture, especially at the vital age reached by Hibler, the mother tends to stunt growth and confirm any underlying insecurities creating an environment of neurosis, i.e. the flourishing of latent homosexuality. The much older and wiser Mother Redempta tends to hang-back and observe; when “Lammy” smugly asks her: “How could you let the Army send such a man?” She knowingly looks at her and proceeds to recount the heroic and selfless deeds of the Major during the War, and ending with the question: “Do you really think such an officer is incapable of understanding or humility?” And, that is the absolute linchpin to the film’s exploration of masculinity, male role models, and fatherhood, that without understanding and humility, masculinity becomes a sort of false symbol or at worst a caricature – probably best embodied in the often ugly and hyper masculine men represented in the 1970s drawings of “gay” artist Tom of Finland and in modern “gay” pornography. For, once there is a complete disconnection from the masculine, as first represented by the father, everything around the world of men and manliness becomes fetishized and sick.