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The Great Santini will have an effect on any Army/Navy/Marine Corps/Air Force Brat - they may be made nervous, resentful, or perhaps proud. Southerner Pat Conroy specialized in novels celebrating the special qualities of the American South, and military service is one of the South's strongest traditions. Generations of young Southern men have served their country because they were bred and raised for that purpose. Lewis John Carlino adapted Conroy's novel, softening some of its rougher sections but communicating what for Conroy was a personal experience -- the story is based at least somewhat on his own childhood. Robert Duvall stars in The Great Santini and gives one of his strongest performances. The film was finished the same year as Apocalypse Now, but Orion was so unsure of its commerciality that it released it first to cable TV, under a different title.
Lt. Colonel Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) is a wild man Marine Corps pilot, who holds his squadron to rigorous standards in the air but encourages such egregious shenanigans after duty hours that he knows he'll be passed up for promotion. Bull doesn't care. He harasses Marines of lower rank and smirks his way through lectures from his commander, knowing that as long as his flying is clean and his performance tops, the Corps will stand by him. Returning from a stint in Spain, Bull uproots his family once again for a new home in South Carolina. The kids have no choice but to drop all their friends and try to fit in yet again in entire new schools. Older daughter Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky, inspired) takes a facetious attitude to everything, while oldest son Ben (Michael O'Keefe) bears the brunt of his father's
First off, the percentage of harmonious military families can't be that much different than that in civilian life. But most military kids will be able to relate to aspects of The Great Santini to some degree. There's no authority like blind patriarchal authority, and there's also no tyranny that can match a household where a military man expects his family to render unto him blind obedience in all things. I wouldn't call the Meechum experience at all atypical, in basics. The average military father is not a combat ace, but he might very well act like one. Alcohol would figure in the picture more. Assuming that the wife isn't as strong as the husband, she might drink as well, or simply withdraw. As for the kids, they either rebel by going wild or do their best to beat dad at his own game. This is how some of the toughest and most capable soldiers are nurtured, I'm sure. Whether they're fit to live among normal people is a matter of opinion. I would say that many kids subjected to this kind of upbringing come away with at least some issues, like problems dealing with confrontations, or a diminished desire to compete at all.
In The Great Santini Bull Meechum only seems to be an exceptional, extreme case. By any normal standard Meechum is not fit to be around his own family. Liberal types will blanch at the thought of General Patton as a father, making his kids line up and bark back their assent to his formal commands. Any sign of sensitivity in a son is something to be stamped out, post haste. And his daughters can forget about having a relationship with him. Lisa Jane Persky's Mary Anne has a hilarious yet painful scene trying to get her father to look her in the eye and talk to her person to person. Bull is incapable of this. The movie makes his the kids either strong willed or too young to yet show permanent psychic scars. Miraculously, the movie also shows Blythe Danner remaining in love with this man even though she has to protect her children from him on a daily basis, like a lioness who doesn't want her cubs to get eaten. I'm sure that Attila the Hun had a loyal spouse or two, and Lillian just rolls with the punches. "What doesn't kill a kid will make it stronger" might be a good bit of denial-speak for her, but she holds up under everything. Bull threatens to hit Lillian when she comes to Ben's defense. A furious look shoots across her face, but all is soon back to 'normal'.
This is not a criticism of the movie, because real life works just like this. Who says peoples' behavior is logical? That's another major plus in the film's favor.
The acting in The Great Santini is fine all around. Duvall never comes unglued in extended drunk and mournful scenes that would defeat a lesser actor. His browbeating of Michael O'Keefe's Ben is relentless and intolerable. O'Keefe shows us both the frustrated boy and the man inside, learning to exert his own aggressive instincts when cornered. There are several scenes in the movie where the Bull Meechum character would find himself under arrest, if he were an ordinary civilian. The truth of the movie (and a shame of our military) is that his uniform and status as a warrior excuses men like Bull from civilized conduct.
Blythe Danner is always glorious; she makes it seem natural that Lillian could still be head-over-heels in love with this brute, who, after all, is certainly honest and faithful. Danner's later role in Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides, another Conroy story, is a really lazy piece of casting. The two characters played by Danner seem almost identical, right down to the birthday party with the candles.
Off on the periphery are Paul Mantee (not seen much since Robinson Crusoe on Mars), Paul Gleason, and David Keith in his first film appearance. Theresa Merritt and Stan Shaw play the Meechums' black maid and her slow-witted son, Toomer. In the book Ben gets involved with a Jewish student and a black farmer, but the movie instead invests screen time in a transparent New South civil rights sidebar plot in which Ben tries to save Toomer from some local toughs. It comes off as yet another movie in which the tragic death of a black character is trivialized as a "learning experience" for a good-hearted white character. The movie doesn't even pause to reflect on what this means to Toomer's mom; she just disappears from the story. Next moral education slide, please!
The Great Santini has remained famous for its searing basketball scene, with Bull bouncing the ball off Ben's head and asking him if he's gonna cry like a baby. Lewis John Carlino gets top marks for this and other scenes with the whole family present, which perfectly capture the group dynamic of outrage and injustice.
Is the Warner Archive Collection disc of The Great Santini a DVD-R? It is purplish in tone, but the movie is encoded with the same formatting of normal DVDs, including English subtitles. The transfer is quite good, and the strong soundtrack flatters Elmer Bernstein's opening martial theme. The large Southern house that the Meechums move into (a must for a Conroy story) looks very attractive at all times. It's good that Bull has such a high rank, because in 1962 the average living quarters of officers in the Marine Corps below major were enough to make any wife consider desertion.
A title states that the film had military cooperation, so I suppose the clearance office wasn't offended by Meechum's grotesque stunts and being the worst imaginable S.0.B. of a father. A few flying scenes are included, very wisely offered without hype or glamorization. The Great Santini is an interesting movie about a subject seldom broached in films, before or since.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Santini rates:
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