By now most of the loyal Paterons for the Retro Network have listened to the exclusive episode of Jason and Mickey’s Drive In series about Major Payne. But did you know that the story of Major Benson Winifred Payne is based on this movie from 1955 starring Charlton Heston. Did you also know that while this movie is not currently available for any price on any of the streaming services, it is available for free and legally on the Internet Archive, at this LINK.
I sat down to watch this movie and at the risk of bringing a generation’s worth of wrath upon me, this is the better movie. I know! I know! Major Payne is a product of it’s time and that time is called Jim Carey. In 1994, Jim Carey starring movies Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber were all in theaters. The Ace sequel was rushed for 1995. Movie studios are going to always react in a certain way, so Damon Wayans who was on In Living Color with Carey was given a remake of a previous property and came up with an over the top comedic quotable and marketable character.
Back in 1955 though Charlton Heston plays a 15 year Army veteran who is having trouble adjusting to the newer kinder Army. He shoots off his mouth, and expects everyone to be as hardened and battle tested as himself. After Major Benson opens his mouth wide enough to insert his left, his left, his left, right, left foot in a nationally read whatever they would have called viral back then interview with Newsweek magazine.
Benson is punished and given one last chance or else his entire Army career will disappear. He’s sent to a Catholic school boy’s academy with the worst ROTC and given a short time frame to shape up them, and himself. In short time he meets the 300 boys, of which only a few are given enough individual screen time to become characters. He also meets the school doctor, Dr. Kay “Lamby” Lambert, who coincidentally is attractive, single, and a little bit younger than him.
As much as some scenes in Major Payne might not play the same way 25 years later, there are loads of scenes in this movie that are not how society operates 65 years later. Major Benson aggressively pursues Lamby which makes sense because his only other female options are the nuns that run the school. Dr Lambert is played by Julie Adams who is best known for the original Creature from the Black Lagoon. So she’s used to males without social graces physically going after her.
Major Benson doesn’t want to be at this school. He’s treating all of the kids like they’re battling on the front lines. He has no room for excuses. In one scene of the movie he takes the school’s football team which hasn’t won a game in 4 years to their first victory. But they allowed some points to be scored, so he makes them practice until they are perfect. He expects perfection even out of the 6 year old Tiger. This Tiger has a dead father and a mom who works too much, similar but different to the Major Payne version who is an orphan. Classic Tiger also has a mom/crush relationship with the good Doctor. Major Benson is trying to date essentially a single mother, with all of the problems that every one but him would expect.
There’s a couple of over the top for the time silly scenes with the school’s maintenance man. A running joke between the Major and his commanding officer. Tiger is borderline an unbearable precocious child but in the same heartfelt scene in which the Major loosens up to him, the audience does as well. This is also the major (pun intended) turn for Benson. He doesn’t change his character or demeanor. He begins to treat his boys/men as individuals and not blanket policies for all. A six year old and a sixteen year old should not be addressed in the same way, but that was a lesson the Army never taught.
Many things happen leading up to the movie’s finale ROTC inspection. Benson and Lamby fall in love. The kids have found respect for the Major and themselves. In a swerve, the good Doctor tricks the Major in the movie’s most brilliant moment that firmly puts her on an equal level.
The movie is about an hour and 45 minutes long. It’s packed, a lot happens, but it also gives the moments and the actors space to breathe. No scene feels rushed, they are given as much time as needed. If Major Payne has anything over Major Benson it’s the added scene of his next class. Within the scene it’s understood who Major Payne now is, who is family is, what his job entails. At the end of The Private War of Major Benson a happy ending is assumed but there is also a giant question of what happens to everyone next? Sixty five years later I’m sure that answer isn’t coming. I’ll have to assume Major Benson spent the rest of his life happily living among lambs and tigers, and making sure those damn dirty apes kept their stinking paws off of him.