“The Great Santini” is a military movie based on the novel by Pat Conroy. Conroy used his own father as the main character and the novel is the story of growing up in a family run by a domineering military man. The movie was directed and co-written by Lewis John Carlino. It opened so poorly that the studio tried changing the name to “The Ace” and then sold the rights to HBO. The reviews were so good that the studio tried reopening it, but its debut on HBO destroyed its box office. The movie did receive two Academy Award nominations - Best Actor (Robert Duvall) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael O’Keefe).
Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum is introduced as “the warrior without a war”. He is a hard-drinking asshole who is prone to jeopardizing his career by showing contempt for his superiors. He runs his family like a Drill Sergeant. The further he is from action, the more hell they catch. None of his family is remotely like him. His wife is a classic military wife, but not a classic war movie wife. She does not give her husband any ultimatums and he does not have to choose the service over his family. In this respect, she is more typical of a military wife than what you see in most war movies. She loves her husband, but has to act as buffer between him and his children. His oldest son Ben (O’Keefe) is a star basketball player, but too sensitive for Bull. In a crucial scene, Bull bullies his son in a one on one basketball game. Bull really hates to lose. Later, he forces Ben to man up during one of his high school games. Bull hates any show of weakness. He refers to his youngest son as “a little homo”. His daughter Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky) plays the role of the rebellious teenager. She is feisty and funny and Bull does not know what to make of her, of course.
|"I order you to take a dive, son"|
A subplot involves the friendship of Ben with a black teenager named Toomer. Since the movie is set in Beafort, South Carolina (and shot on location there), Toomer is the target of local racists. Ben gets caught in the conflict and it culminates in a tragedy. The crisis results in a family moment of catharsis that moves them on the path to reconciliation and the movie toward a happy ending which is thankfully avoided.
As I mentioned, “The Great Santini” is not really a war movie, but it can be described better as a movie about a military family. Having grown up in a similar family, I can attest to the realistic depiction of a family that is run by a Lt. Col. as though it is a military unit. I am pleased to say that the family dynamics in my family were not as Hollywood-worthy as those of the Meechum family. Thankfully, Bull is not representative of all fighter pilots during peacetime. The movie takes your stereotypical hot shot pilot and gives him a family in peacetime and then lets matters take their course. The movie has been commended as an accurate portrayal of a fighter pilot’s family, but while that fraternity certainly chaffs at the lack of action, only a small minority take it out on their families like Bull does. They are the ones whose sons write novels about them. My father may have awakened his kids with “It’s time to get up in the morning!” like Bull does, but he and his comrades were more warriors doing their peacetime job than warriors without a war. Hollywood loves outsized personalities so we get troglodytes like Meechum. By the way, I have read that the Marines cooperated with the film because they found that Bull’s outstanding leadership qualities and his deep-down love for his family would make him the new Sgt. Ryker. But Ryker was not such an asshole and did not inflict himself on a family.
|the cowed and the Bull|
The strength of the movie is in the acting. The cast is excellent. Duvall is his usual outstanding self and has a rare role where he hams it up a bit (another is the similar Kilgore from “Apocalypse Now”). He does such a good job that you wonder if the movie does not have a happy ending after all. O’Keefe is able to stand his ground against a force of nature. Danner is perfect as the anachronistic wife. I can only wonder if my own mother would have put up with a Meechum-like husband or what it would have been like to have a father like him. I know I appreciated my father after watching this movie.
The movie has a made-for-television feel to it because of the low budget. In spite of that, it gets the atmosphere right. Filming in South Carolina adds to the Southern flavor and lends itself to the subplot of racism. The scene in the high school gym reminded me of many small town gyms I have been in. The flight scenes are excellent and that is attributable to the cooperation of the USMC which provided a squadron of F-4s. The movie even manages to get a mock dog fight in.
“The Great Santini” is an excellent soap opera set in a military context, but it cannot be considered for my 100 Best War Movies because I am not comfortable with it as a war movie. Plus I cannot get past feeling it misses its mark due to the main character being odious, in my opinion.
GRADE = B-